Thursday October 29, 2020

‘Everybody in Beirut is traumatised. One colleague lost five friends in the blast’

Covid-19 and an economic crisis are exacerbating the trauma of this month’s explosion, writes a Concern worker on the ground

21st August, 2020
Dom Hunt, humanitarian policy advisor at Concern Worldwide, pictured in Beirut, where 80 per cent of homes are still empty following the chemical explosion on August 4

Beirut is a swirling cauldron of emotions this week, more than a fortnight after the chemical explosion which tore through the city, injuring 5,000 people and damaging the homes of 300,000.

Everybody you meet is traumatised. Everyone I know knows people who were seriously injured or are still in hospital. A person I work with lost five friends in the blast.

During Concern’s home visits to assess the level of damage and needs of families, people talk incessantly about the explosion, with words often turning to tears. Friends whose home was badly damaged by the explosion are still getting panic attacks.

Lebanon was already on the verge of economic collapse before the August 4 explosion. The economic toll is evident on the city’s streets with many shops, bars and restaurants half-empty. People are staying at home.

There is much anger and apportioning of blame; the backdrop to almost every conversation in Beirut is the political crisis and who is responsible.

In contrast, there is the enthusiasm and energy of a wave of volunteers who have mobilised in the wake of the explosion to come to the aid of the victims. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, they were on the streets with brushes and shovels cleaning up the shards of glass and debris. Initially it was random, but now they are organising themselves into a strong voluntary network.

Concern is working with some of these volunteer groups to help them carry out needs assessments within communities and improve their skills. There are engineers and architects among the volunteers. Concern has highly experienced humanitarian staff who are offering their skills in solidarity and support to the voluntary response.

This week Concern teams distributed more than 100 shelter kits to families in some of the poorest areas of Beirut. The kits contain items such as tools, timber, fittings and plastic sheeting – essential for families trying to weather-proof their damaged homes before the winter rains arrive in the coming months. This is a temporary measure while we wait for more permanent repair work, which is currently being organised, to start.

Concern has been working in Lebanon since 2013, helping some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the the country. This meant our team, who work in the north of Lebanon, could respond quickly after the explosion, transporting shelter kits from our stores to Beirut.

In addition to shelter materials, our team are distributing a variety of items including soap, toothbrushes, disinfectant, nappies and menstrual pads. They are also providing psychosocial support to those who need it.

This will be followed by upgrading damaged apartments to ensure dignified and safe accommodation, which will include ensuring that water supply, sewerage systems, pumps and electrical systems are in good order.

Our rapid response was made possible by the Irish public’s generous response to our continuing emergency appeal for donations.

In some parts of Beirut where buildings have been extensively damaged, 80 per cent of homes are still empty this week – their occupants having left to live with relatives and friends, their homes too damaged to be viable accommodation.

Further away from the centre of the blast, most families are still in their homes. In these areas, some 40 per cent of the houses are damaged, and while help is needed to repair them, they can still be occupied.

The economic crisis has led to a banking crisis where banks are preventing account holders from withdrawing their savings. Few people have sufficient access to their savings to be able to fix their homes by themselves.

Concern is focusing on the poorest communities, including migrant workers, low-income Lebanese families and the Armenian community in the city. Many of these people do not have support networks within Lebanon. Some live close to the port and worked as casual labourers there. Their livelihoods have vanished overnight with the explosion. Others lost their jobs as businesses folded as a result of the blast and the rising economic crisis.

While weather-proofing damaged homes is our first priority, access to food will be a key issue in the months to come. Lebanon’s economic woes have resulted in a tripling of food prices. Poor people cannot afford to live any more – they simply don’t earn enough to buy the food they need to survive.

We are working with our partners in the Alliance 2015 group of international non-governmental organisations to assess the medium-term food security situation in Beirut and the knock-on impact of the explosion on food access in the city. We are also looking at how we can link food cooperatives that we have worked with in northern Lebanon into the supply chain to get food to people who need it.

As if the explosion and the economic and political crisis facing Lebanon was not enough to contend with, the Covid-19 pandemic is also raging in the country. The blast damaged a number of hospitals and health facilities and resulted in a mass movement of people to safety.

Covid-19 was already in Lebanon prior to August 4 and was spreading slowly. Since the explosion, the number of confirmed cases has soared, with many of those within the blast zone. It is a frightening situation.

A government lockdown is due to begin today with night-time curfews and a range of travel restrictions. Aid workers and the army of volunteers helping out are exempt in order to allow the humanitarian response continue.

Finally, one of my highlights of the last three weeks has been the gesture by Concern teams to present a rose to women in homes which we assess. It is a very simple way of acknowledging the trauma which these women are experiencing. Normally we would have done this by hugging them, but Covid protocols prevent that now.

We cannot hug them so we give them a rose as a sign of our shared humanity and grief. It adds to people’s sense of dignity and humanity. It is a small gesture that is understood and very much appreciated.

Dom Hunt is humanitarian policy advisor at Concern Worldwide. To learn more about Concern’s work or to donate to its Lebanon Emergency Appeal visit concern.net

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