Amid wreckage in Beirut, health and psychosocial needs are paramount

The blast, and subsequent shockwaves, devastated large parts of Beirut. © UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz

BEIRUT, Lebanon/UNITED NATIONS, New York – A masked aid worker helps an injured woman limp from a mobile first-aid clinic. Another aid worker, Hiba Kchour, carries hygiene supplies past the shattered husk of a car. Others step over rubble as they distribute boxes of personal protective equipment (PPE) to health ministry workers

These were some of the first scenes to follow the horrific explosion on 4 August, which consumed large swaths of Lebanon’s capital, killing more than 170 and leaving thousands wounded. Dozens are still missing.

The ammonium nitrate blast, and subsequent shockwaves, caused devastation throughout Beirut. Dozens of critical health and medical facilities were damaged or destroyed.

UNFPA is on the ground providing medical assistance, distributing hygiene supplies and providing other critical support in affected areas – including prioritizing women’s reproductive health needs.

“No one has paid attention to women’s basic needs,” said Ms. Kchour, a social worker from Amel Association, who visited women door-to-door to provide assistance.

“After the explosion, they lost everything, even the ability to buy sanitary pads.”

Hundreds of thousands in need

UNFPA is working with partner organizations – including the Akkarouna Association, Amel Association, Al Makassed Association, Lecorvaw, Acted, Lemsic, Al Mithaq Association and INTERSOS – to scale up its efforts on the ground.

UNFPA aims to meet the needs of some 81,000 women of reproductive age, who are among the 300,000 who were displaced due to the catastrophe. An estimated 3,900 women who are currently pregnant will be in need of antenatal, obstetric and neonatal care services in the coming months.

Their health needs are at serious risk.

The Primary Health Care Network Central Drugs Warehouse was seriously damaged, along with more than 80 primary health care centers, according to partners. Preliminary assessments show that some 15 hospitals have been significantly impacted, with at least three partially or totally inoperable.

The crisis comes atop the existing COVID-19 pandemic, which had already infected thousands in Lebanon. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, disaster response needs superseded protective measures, such as social distancing. As a result, COVID-19 cases are expected to increase, with a record peak of 309 cases seen on 11 August. Now, the mass exodus of people to small crowded areas could further exacerbate the spread of the virus.

There is also an acute need for psychosocial support.

“The mental health needs after such a disaster are immense, and the ramifications will be seen for months, possibly years, to come – and in all age groups,” said Dr. Brigitte Khoury, Director of the Arab Regional Center for research and training in mental health at the American University of Beirut.

Dr. Khoury is working with UNFPA to integrate psychological first aid within reproductive health services and programs for survivors of gender-based violence. “We will be ready to provide more advanced specialized services when and where needed,” she noted.

A mobile first aid clinic tends to those wounded and in need of health services. © UNFPA Lebanon

UNFPA on the ground

Working through its partners, UNFPA is distributing more than 10,000 dignity kits – containing sanitary pads, soap and towels among other items – in the blast-devastated neighborhoods of Karantina, Al Khanda2 Al Ghami’, Mar Mikhael and Geitawi.

UNFPA’s partners are also expanding reproductive health services, including bringing in midwives and other personnel for door-to-door visits, health care and other essential support. Thousands of boxes of surgical masks, face shields, gloves, medical gowns and other supplies have also been delivered to the health ministry.

UNFPA is also prioritizing services to prevent gender-based violence and provide support to survivors. Women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence had already increased due to COVID-19 restrictions. Blast-related displacements, disrupted services, economic hardships and rising stresses could worsen the risk of violence and exploitation.

UNFPA is appealing for $19.65 million to support these life-saving measures in the coming months.

“Every single woman in the affected areas has greatly suffered as a result of the tragic explosion, whether it is material or property damage, losing a loved family member or neighbor, or having a sense of insecurity or lack of safety, to name but a few,” said Asma Kurdahi, UNFPA’s Head of Office in Lebanon.

“Her basic needs – including menstrual pads – must be fulfilled, allowing her to maintain minimum dignity.”

A version of this article was posted on on August 13, 2020.

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