On Tuesday 4 August, at 6:08pm the city of Beirut was ripped by an explosion the size of a mini atomic bomb or even a strong earthquake. Dr Imad Uthman, RCP international advisor for Lebanon and resident of Beirut gives his account of this dark day and the aftermath of this tragic event.
The centre of the explosion was Beirut’s port, where nearly 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in one of the warehouses for more than 6 years accidentally exploded. The blast was felt in Cyprus, nearly 270 km away. The level of destruction in the city resembles scenes from a World War. This has resulted in more than 175 deaths, around 5,000 wounded who were treated in hospitals, and at least 2,000 wounded with lacerations who were treated in pharmacies or clinics as far as 100 km away from the city. Nearly 300,000 Beirut residents lost their homes and are now officially displaced people, living in miserable conditions.
Four hospitals in the city of Beirut, including one university hospital with 200 inpatients were totally destroyed and needed to be evacuated. Six nurses lost their lives in these hospitals. The magnitude of what happened is beyond description, hospital morgues are full, regular hospital inpatients were mobilised to periphery hospitals miles away. In many instances the A&E staff, were not able to resuscitate arresting patients. In order to save less critical patients, this was the most painful decision that they had to take. On the other side, some hospital staff went out of their way to save lives, a nurse at the neonatal intensive care unit of the Greek hospital that was totally destroyed, dug her way through falling glass in order to save three neonates in the unit. She grabbed them single-handed and brought them to safety. Unfortunately, during this mass casualty situation, all the preventive measures and precautions against COVID-19 fell apart. Let’s hope Beirut will not become a new epicentre for this pandemic. Most of the hospitals in Beirut ran out of surgical equipment. This happened at a time when all the hospitals in Lebanon were already struggling through the worst economic crisis that is ravaging the country, with major layoffs and salary cuts in these institutions.
I have been working at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre (AUBMC) for nearly 30 years, and I have witnessed the civil wars and invasions that have ravaged the country, but I have never seen anything of this sort. At no point in time did the health care system in Lebanon have to cope with anything of this magnitude, which has been described as similar to the 11 September New York bombings of the twin towers.
Now, nearly 2 weeks after the catastrophe, people are still in shock and disbelief. There remain nearly 120 casualties in intensive care units, and around 50 missing persons still under the rubble. Hospital wards are full, and many countries have sent 'field hospitals' in order to help the saturated hospitals in the country. At AUBMC (one of the largest medical centres in the country), our resources were literally drained. The hospital supplies we consumed within a few hours on that doomed night, would have been consumed over the course of a year at least under normal operations. The worst part is that we will not be able to replenish these supplies with the current financial crises in the country.
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