U.N. agencies scramble to help Beirut warehouse blast victims

The deadly warehouse blast in Beirut this week devastated Lebanon’s already faltering healthcare system and U.N. agencies are scrambling to support hundreds of thousands of people, officials said on Friday. The United Nations announced an additional $6 million in funding for its response - taken from its Central Emergency Response Fund - which comes on top of $9 million it released from the U.N. Lebanese Humanitarian Fund. Tuesday’s explosion fully or partially damaged five hospitals and removed 500 beds of capacity, a World Health Organization spokesman told a U.N. briefing. Tonnes of personal protection equipment used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have also been destroyed just as infections in the country surge. “The already weak health system in Lebanon due to the refugee crisis, to COVID, the economic and political crisis and the lack of personal protective equipment for health workers is a huge issue,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said. The WHO has flown supplies from Dubai to treat people burned and wounded by flying glass and other debris. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and aid chief Mark Lowcock would hold a virtual briefing next week to discuss the humanitarian situation as well as “highlight gaps for urgently needed support,” according to an invitation sent to member states. The explosion killed 154 people and injured 5,000. “Hospitals are overwhelmed with injured patients,” Lindmeier said, adding the blast also destroyed 17 containers of WHO medical supplies and completely burned items of PPE. The World Food Programme plans to import wheat flour and grains for bakeries and mills to help stave off food shortages. The agency said it is concerned the explosion would worsen what it called “an already grim food security situation” in Lebanon, which was already dealing with an economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people had their homes damaged. “The need for shelter is massive,” said Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. The agency is making available stocks of shelter kits, plastic sheets, blankets and mattresses, he said. Several refugees may be among the dead, according to initial but unconfirmed reports, Yaxley said. Children’s aid agency UNICEF said up to 100,000 children were among the displaced. The blast also damaged schools educating 55,000 children and destroyed a critical care facility for newborns. Ten containers of PPE, including hundreds of thousands of gowns, gloves and masks just procured by the health ministry for its COVID-19 response, were destroyed, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said. “The areas around the blast are those with some of the most active clusters and community transmission,” she said. “It is impossible for those affected to practice safe distancing and there is a massive need for masks, but for most people right now COVID is not top of mind.”

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