On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion, “so powerful it could be felt more than 150 miles away,” devastated Beirut, Lebanon, causing billions of dollars in damage across the city. The blast claimed over 100 lives and displaced 300,000 people in the nation’s capital. In the early response, the violent explosion overwhelmed Beirut’s emergency services and hospitals, many already strained due to the coronavirus global pandemic.
Lebanese Red Cross teams immediately deployed to provide humanitarian relief. Thirty teams mobilized all 125 Red Cross ambulances to respond, transporting the critically wounded to hospitals. At the blast site, staff led search and rescue efforts while triage and first aid stations were set up across the Beirut port to treat injuries. A catastrophe of this magnitude would be an all-consuming event in normal times, but during a global pandemic, it is just one aspect of the crisis that faces Lebanon.
Positive coronavirus cases—already high before the explosion—spiked across the city shortly after the explosion, forcing another government-imposed lockdown. Meanwhile, hospitals, filled with the victims of the explosion, have no room for the newly infected COVID-19 patients. This puts the city, and the country, in a precarious situation; forced to choose between victims of a local tragedy or those of a worldwide pandemic.
The Lebanese Red Cross has been on the frontlines of the pandemic since it first entered the country in February. The organization, made up of nearly 4,000 staff and volunteers, quickly sprang to action to ensure its workers were trained and protected from the virus to safely carry out their vital relief function. Healthcare workers, ambulance drivers, and other face-to-face roles were particularly susceptible to the disease. The Red Cross supplied high-quality PPE including masks, uniforms, boots, and disinfection materials and equipped its ambulances with oxygen refills to accommodate increased respiratory issues.
While Beirut’s circumstances are unique, the pandemic is an unfolding crisis that has already strained existing systems not designed to manage multiple overlapping shocks. Whether it’s a natural or a human-caused disaster, the importance of strengthening existing systems and bolstering the capacity of humanitarian response organizations like the Red Cross cannot be overstated. Thanks to the hardworking volunteers and staff at the Red Cross and the outpouring of support from the global community in the aftermath of the blast, many of those injured or infected in Lebanon have a chance for recovery.