Operating under the guidance of the Lebanese Government, UN agencies in Lebanon are actively engaged in addressing the multiple challenges caused by COVID-19 and will be launching an emergency response plan for Lebanon and funding appeal for the three coming months to ensure access to health care for all and support the most vulnerable Lebanese and other communities, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ad Interim for Lebanon Claudio Cordone told Annahar in an interview via Skype.
UN agencies will also work on securing isolation and quarantine centers for refugees who have symptoms of COVID-19, Cordone said.
Q: What is the UN in Lebanon doing to prevent and respond to COVID-19 outbreak?
A: The UN and its partners are engaged in a joint effort to support the government of Lebanon in containing and defeating the outbreak, working under the government’s guidance. Our role is focused on enhancing the capacity of the health system to cope with the spread of the virus, including making projections to plan for the worse, in order to be better prepared .Thus, we and our partners are helping in increasing the number of hospital beds, in particular intensive care beds. According to our projections, there will be a need for 700 Intensive care units at any one time, and we are not there yet.
We have provided Rafic Hariri University Hospital with technical assistance, equipment and supplies, so it would be able to quickly become the reference hospital for detection and treatment of cases. We also facilitated the procurement of testing kits to increase the testing capacity, assessed a number of both private and public hospitals to see which ones can be added to Rafic Hariri University Hospital in terms of the response, and supported the training of nearly 400 nurses in hospitals and primary health centers to deal with this new infection.
In parallel, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Relief and Works Agency or Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in addition to Municipalities, have identified and prepared quarantine and isolation centers for those who have mild symptoms in crowded areas to avoid overburdening hospitals, to be used by Syrian refugees in informal settlements and Palestinian refugees in camps. These Centers are being assessed by the syndicate of nurses under the National Emergency Task Force chaired by General Mahmoud al-Asmar, and we are close to the completion phase.
In addition to that, we are working closely with the Lebanese Government and civil society to raise awareness about prevention and mitigation measures including good hygiene practices and distributed soaps and hygiene materials to schools and informal settlements and camps in coordination with the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNICEF and others. Within this framework, we launched a campaign entitled #SafeHands4Lebanon in March on World Water Day that reached 3 million people, highlighting the importance of basic hand washing to prevent the spreading of the virus, and supported the Ministry of information website to help address fake news and misinformation that enhances stigma.
Moreover, we are working to come up with a plan to deliver assistance to the most vulnerable, especially to those who lost their jobs, and we are adjusting the way we deliver our services, continuing the provision of water and sanitation services and we are looking at addressing issues like Child protection and Gender based violence after the increase in domestic violence reported against women in confinement, and other human rights violations like stigmatization of certain groups, etc.
Q: Public Health Minister Hamad Hassan criticized the international community for being slow to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in host countries like Lebanon, what is your comment on that?
A: The minister and his team are the central actors in the response, and we are working closely with the Ministry in terms of planning and increasing the capacity of hospitals, procuring supplies and helping to identify new hospitals to deal with corona cases for Lebanese and other nationals, in addition to preparing potential isolation centers that are being assessed by the Government Task Force.
We are working as fast as we can, but the UN was not equipped on the ground to deal with infectious diseases. We have different mandates but adjusted and have been involved in training people and working with partners to be ready in case the virus spreads beyond the current level. Luckily in Lebanon, we are still in the containment phase. If the virus spreads, we need isolation centers to handle mild cases for those people living in crowded areas, and by doing that, we would be preserving hospitals to deal with severe cases. We will be ready on isolation centers in a matter of weeks and will not let anybody down. Our relationship with the Government is good and we want to work closely with all Ministries to address the needs.
Q: UNHCR and UNRWA have announced response plans to COVID-19 in refugee communities in Lebanon. However, the two UN agencies have been criticized for not fulfilling their duties, even at the level of distribution of hygiene kits. What is your comment on that?
A: For the refugees, UNHCR and UNRWA made massive awareness campaigns and they will cover any costs related to testing and medical care of any infected refugee. So far we didn’t have any Syrian refugee case that needs treatment and only one Palestinian who was infected – he had mild symptoms, did not live in a camp and has recovered now. We are ready to facilitate an increase in testing in Lebanon also for Syrian and Palestinian refugees, there is a proposal for doing random testing where refugees are concentrated and if asked by the health authorities we will facilitate it.
UNRWA has adjusted the operations of its 27 health centers to avoid the risk of infection by reducing the number of visitors, while UNHCR is active in enhancing hospital capacity, helping in identifying under the guidance of the Ministry of Public Health and together with UNRWA and MSF potential isolation centers, and we are working on getting clearance from the Task force to make those isolation centers active in matter of weeks.
At the same time, people are understandably afraid and frustrated and believe that more should be done. It is a new unprecedented experience and an invisible threat difficult to handle for Lebanon that has a large number of people and is already dealing with a heavy load of refugees. Anyone should be ready to receive criticism, but there are global challenges for example in getting the equipment, and the whole world is looking for that. Given that, it is important to differentiate between facts and misinformation, many plans and lots of work is being done that did not get visibility.
Q: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for a global and holistic response, but so far we have witnessed the expansion of state-driven protective measures, prioritizing their citizen’s health care, how can we overcome this challenge?
A: The Secretary General has said very clearly that a crisis of this nature is of global nature and the response has to be global. The best response is by cooperating across countries, sharing experiences and equipment and provide advice to ensure effectiveness. This is for the immediate response. But the virus spread has also a massive socio-economic impact and we are just in the beginning, thus the S.G called for a multilateral response to help the developing countries. A debt relief appeal was made by WHO, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help countries that have weak health systems and economic crisis. If there is a collapse in the affected country, the infection spreads further, therefore solidarity is not just an issue of ethics but it is in the interest also of the developed countries.
Q: Some analysts accused the UN of mismanaging the corona virus crisis, after Russia , China, Cuba dispatched medical teams to support Italy and the US while the World Health Organization was supposed to assume that mission, what is your comment on that?
A: WHO primarily advises governments on best scientific practices, what should be done. It is for governments to choose their response, some adopted lockdown others not. For Lebanon, WHO has worked on preparedness and response plan and assisted the country in obtaining resources, in advising on the return of the expatriates and scaling up the capacity of hospitals.
The S.G was clear after the US President cut the funding allocated to WHO, that this is the time to support the WHO, the best placed organization to confront the virus. Furthermore, the Director General of WHO added that state members can initiate an investigation on how WHO responded to the crisis. However, the same principles should apply to other international organizations and governments to look back to learning lessons. There will be time for accountability but at the moment, let’s put together all the resources, and focus on responding to the crisis.
Q: Don’t you believe that a pandemic like COVID-19 creates a threat to international peace and security? Isn't the UN Security Council entitled to handle this challenge and sanction countries who might have participated in spreading the Corona virus by hiding information?
A: The S.G asked for a global ceasefire and I look forward to that call to be taken on board. Too many in Syria and Yemen have endured conflict and their suffering is now compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and its likely long-lasting social and economic impacts. It is an opportunity for the international community and the Security Council in particular to support the call for a ceasefire and address some of the global inequalities that exist that are adding to the crisis. It is necessary to be working across borders, implement debt relief and looking ahead to helping countries to enhance health systems and social security programs.
Q: The combined effect of the pandemic and economic slowdown could lead to “enhanced instability, unrest and conflict,” is there any UN roadmap to overturn the tide?
A: Lebanon is already mired in a financial and economic crisis and on top of corona virus which exacerbates the situation. We are working with national partners and counting on international support by IMF and World Bank to make sure that the most vulnerable receive assistance, while at the same time the Government implements the economic reforms with international support. In collaboration with the Lebanese Government, the UN is working on the identification to the most vulnerable cases, and putting an emergency response plan for Lebanon for the three coming months, to fill the remaining gaps in funding. This appeal will be announced very soon, to respond to the immediate needs.
We are committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 that are becoming even more relevant. The crisis has shown the negative impacts of not having achieved sufficient progress in this sense.
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