As the pandemic penetrates more areas, what does serious work to contain it look like? That question is uppermost in the minds of public health and political leaders around the globe. For Lebanon, a relatively small country, it must look collaborative if the work is going to succeed.
“In Lebanon, this crisis comes at an already extraordinary difficult time economically, financially and socially,” said United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon ad interim, Claudio Cordone. The country already was reeling due to a serious economic and financial crisis, an ongoing refugee crisis, and persistent anti-government protests. Since it mobilized to stem the spread of COVID-19 on 18 March, Lebanon has closed its land borders, airport and seaports and shuttered all but essential businesses. The United Nations staff in Lebanon’s 26 entities have worked tirelessly alongside Lebanese authorities to deliver a coordinated and coherent response whose goal is ‘leave no one behind.’
Hygiene supplies: Public Health on the Forefront of Response
The priority, an immediate response to the health crisis, was spearheaded by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Lebanon office. It supported Lebanon’s government in addressing medical shortages, procuring locally-produced equipment supplies, training health and non-health workers, increasing testing capacity across the country, and boosting the number of beds for COVID-19 hospital wards and intensive care units.
The early and quick action made a tremendous difference. “So far, Lebanon was able to ensure a strong and well-coordinated preparedness and response to COVID-19. Now, we need to remain vigilant and continue providing the necessary support as the outbreak is far from being over,” said WHO representative in Lebanon, Dr. Iman Shankiti.
Influencers and UN officials take the #SafeHands4Lebanon challenge
Educating the Public
Next came a battle on the pandemic’s second front: against the spread of misinformation, which risks undermining sound advice and endangering the public. “This is a time for science and solidarity,” said Yukie Mokuo, UN Childrens' Fund (UNICEF) Lebanon Representative. UNICEF teamed up with WHO, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Lebanon’s Ministry of Information to launch educational campaigns via television and social media to fight fake news, counter hate speech and work to prevent people with COVID-19 from being stigmatized. Other social media campaigns, launched with the Ministry of Public Health, provided practical tips on preventive and recovery measures. The campaigns’ short videos reached more than three million people through TV and another 2.9 million through social media.
The #SafeHands4Lebanon challenge, promoted handwashing to protect against COVID-19. Social media stars Salma Abu Deif, Rita Lamah and others shared United Nations health messages.
“The COVID-19 crisis proved to be a battle of communication, a battle to change people’s behavior by spreading facts, not fear, while relaying messages of hope to help protect people physically and mentally,” said UNIC Beirut Director Margo El-Helou.
Women and Domestic Violence
Another focus has been women who, as elsewhere, have borne the brunt of the lockdown in Lebanon. In addition to increasing the burdens of unpaid care and putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus, because they make up the majority of healthcare workers, the pandemic also contributed to more domestic violence. The Gender Alert on Covid-19 Lebanon report, produced by UN Women in partnership with the National Commission for Lebanese Women, WHO and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), helped inform the social media campaign UN Women and UNDP undertook.
#TogetherAndEqual aims to influence perpetrators of violence against women, and to challenge men to do their part in domestic work and childcare to alleviate the burden on working mothers. In two weeks, the campaign reached some 210,000 people and engaged over 15 TV presenters, actors, bloggers, and ambassadors to serve as male influencers.
Schools Closed, Online Learning Rolls Out
Students were another top priority. With schools hit hard by the crisis, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UNICEF and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stepped up efforts with the government to ensure students’ continued access to quality and inclusive education. “Despite the crisis, learning should never stop,” said UNESCO’s Regional Director for Education in the Arab States, Dr. Hamed al Hamami. The initiatives were devised to help students continue to learn while at the same time “building a more resilient education system for the future,” he said.
UNRWA’s 27 health centers continue to provide vital healthcare and lifesaving services to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. United Nations photo: UNRWA
Scaling Up Support to Refugees
Refugees’ situation in Lebanon has long been precarious. Palestinian and Syrian refugees, already stranded outside their countries, are unable to maintain physical distance crammed into informal settlements and refugee camps, and many feel their lives have been upended again.
To help them protect themselves, UN offices distributed information to all registered refugees in Lebanon. They also extended emergency cash assistance to 11,500 refugee families, in addition to the 34,500 families already receiving the United Nation's regular monthly cash assistance, to help them meet their essential needs during this period of hardship.
To prevent this disease from gaining a foothold in refugee settlements, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and their civil-society partners worked with the government to create temporary isolation tents and outfit them with staff and protective equipment. They also expanded public hospitals, adding beds and intensive care unit capacity to accommodate more patients from the refugee population.
UNIFIL delivers personal protective equipment in Lebanon. United Nations photo: Pasqual Gorriz
Fighting on All Fronts
Despite the restrictions the pandemic imposed on peacekeepers’ activities, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has continued to carry out its mandate to maintain peace at Lebanon’s southern border while simultaneously helping their Lebanese hosts fight COVID-19.
In addition to responding quickly to those at acute risk, the United Nations also launched the Lebanon Emergency Appeal in early May. It requested US$350 million to respond to the immediate socio-economic impact of Covid-19. The Appeal is premised on the principle of a single health response for all those residing in Lebanon, without distinction based on gender, nationality or status, and under the leadership of the government of Lebanon.
“It is crucial to secure the requested funds so that those most in need can receive urgent humanitarian assistance,” said Claudio Cordone.
In close cooperation with Lebanon’s governments at both national and local levels, the United Nations has undertaken work that is proving crucial to fighting the virus and ensuring that, despite these difficult times, no one is left behind. Lebanon knows better than most nations how critical solidarity is to any serious endeavor. Its people and government are determined that its hard-won progress toward national unity does not fray under the pressure of COVID-19.