As rescue workers continue to look for survivors amongst the rubble of a massive explosion that killed a reported 100 people in Beirut’s port on Tuesday night, the humanitarian implications of the blast in Lebanon’s capital will likely not be clear for some time.
At least 4,000 people are said to have been wounded, and the death toll from the blast could still rise. Hospitals have been struggling to deal with the influx of injured people as buildings collapsed and windows shattered throughout central Beirut.
While the exact cause of the explosion was unclear, government officials said it was related to a large amount of ammonium nitrate confiscated years ago and stored at the port. Ammonium nitrate can be used as both a fertiliser and in bombs, but must be mixed with another substance to ignite.
As the true scale of the damage to people and property emerges, here are some of the impacts we will be keeping an eye on:
First responders are still looking for – and finding – trapped survivors and victims, as healthcare workers tend to the wounded. One major Beirut hospital was severely damaged in the explosion and some patients had to be evacuated, while the Lebanese Red Cross put out an urgent call on Tuesday night for people to give blood. On Wednesday morning, Health Minister Hamad Hasan said hospitals in the city were facing “an acute shortage of everything”.
Lists of those admitted to local hospitals are circulating on messaging apps and social media accounts, in an effort to help people locate missing loved ones.
In addition to medical care, immediate needs for those impacted will likely include food and shelter, as Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said that between 250,000 and 300,000 people had been left “without homes”. Technical teams have not yet been able to assess the damage, and it was not immediately clear if Abboud was referring to the number of homes destroyed or damaged.
Various countries have offered search and rescue teams as well as aid, which has begun arriving by the plane-load.
Further economic pain
Tuesday night’s explosion came as Lebanon was already at a crisis point: The economy has been in freefall for months, unemployment is rising, and the country’s foreign minister resigned on Monday, warning that the country risks becoming a “failed state”.
The financial meltdown, which has seen the local currency collapse, has been worsened by COVID-19, as lockdowns slowed economic activity and remittances from abroad dropped off (a problem that has recently plagued many other countries that rely on money sent home from relatives).
While those hit hardest by the crash have been society’s most vulnerable – including an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees – more and more Lebanese are feeling the pain too. Food prices are rising at a time when people have less money in their pockets, and aid groups have said eviction threats are increasing.
The explosion will likely make things worse. The decimated Beirut port may be unable to take in the imports it relies on for food and other commerce (although Lebanon has other major ports), and people will soon face the expensive prospect of rebuilding their devastated homes and businesses. Abboud, the Beirut governor, said he estimated the damage to be at $3 billion.
Lebanon was already battling COVID-19 before last night brought a deluge of newly injured patients into its hospitals, and last week it instituted a new lockdown to try to control a spike in new infections.
The country has had 5,271 confirmed cases and 65 deaths, but officials said there had been eight deaths in the 24 hours before they announced the renewed restrictions on 27 July. Hasan, the health minister, was quoted as saying at the time that Lebanon has to “work more seriously to avoid a medical humanitarian catastrophe”.
The country’s hospitals have been warning that they are overwhelmed by the outbreak as they battle funding problems, power cuts, and a serious lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). These problems are only going to be made worse by the influx of new patients, not to mention the possibility of further spread if people lack the ability to stay in their homes or access clean water.