Tuesday 4th August, just after 6pm as I was finishing my evening ward round at the American University of Beirut Medical Center two explosions rocked the building, shattering windows and leaving wards and stairwells filled with dust and rubble from falling ceiling panels. We were very fortunate that our hospital suffered relatively minor damage unlike the catastrophic destruction of hospitals in the direct path of the blast wave on the other side of the city. Emergency triage and response teams managed the hundreds of casualties flooding towards the emergency room with calm professionalism and efficiency despite the surrounding fear and panic of those who were injured or desperately seeking loved ones.  A huge number of staff came back to the hospital to help in all capacities including some who had recently been dismissed due to the deepening economic crisis in the country yet came to serve their community.

The famous resilience of the Lebanese people has been evident with the rapid response of NGO’s and spontaneous neighborhood initiatives to deal with the acute needs of the people directly affected by the Beirut port blast. Despite these efforts, there is a prevailing atmosphere of anger, fear and uncertainty.

Over two weeks have now past and although we have been overwhelmed and comforted by personal messages of support from friends and colleagues, plus the rapid response of the international community to provide aid, Lebanon remains in crisis. In the grip of economic collapse and political instability with over 50% of the population trapped in poverty, rising numbers of COVID-19 infections have prompted the decision that the country will be going back in to lock-down for two weeks starting Friday 21st August. Fragile health systems barely coping with the economic situation plus need to contain COVID-19 infections before the blast have been left with limited resources to deal with yet another emergency. The most vulnerable populations in society including refugees and migrant workers are at even greater risk of both physical and psychological harm. Rapid priority-setting and safeguards are urgently required.

As an oncologist I remain an eternal optimist and am hopeful that the current crisis can be a catalyst for meaningful positive change. We were thankfully able to keep treating our oncology patients in our infusion unit the very next day following the Beirut port blast as the broken glass was being swept away and windows replaced. So far, we have been able to protect our patients and staff from COVID-19 with the rapid measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic that we hope will enable us to keep everyone as safe as possible. Focusing on our daily patient care responsibilities has helped us to keep going, looking forward to a brighter future.

Dr. Deborah Mukherji

Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine
Department of Internal Medicine
Division of Hematology Oncology
American University of Beirut