Both Lebanon and Iraq are in a state of panic as coronavirus spreads among the population. All government bodies, municipalities, NGO’s, civil societies, churches, and parishioners — along with CNEWA’s local partners — are coordinating to minimize contamination and prevent the virus from spreading.
Here are brief overviews.
Until today, Iraq confirmed two deaths from the coronavirus, one in Suleymaniyeh province and another in Baghdad, along with 32 confirmed cases of the virus. Accordingly, schools and universities have been closed for 10 days and travel has been banned to virus-hit states.
In Aikawa, the parishes stopped all pastoral and catechetical activities and meetings. Masses are held only on Sundays and people are receiving the Blessed Sacrament by hand. Private hospitals are well prepared to handle suspected cases coming from infected countries. The churches in Iraq are all actively sharing precautions and hygiene tips.
CNEWA/Pontifical Mission Beirut office contacted its local church partners. The Rev. Aphrem Philipos, the Assyrian priest responsible for the Mar Narsay dispensary in Dhuk, described the situation in Kurdistan.
The schools, he said, have been closed in all of Iraq for two weeks. The governmental offices are closed, except for those that are related to electricity, water and health. They are operating until 1 p.m. with half of the staff; if an office used to have two employees, it now has only one, to avoid congestion. All secondary roads between Kurdistan and the Iraqi territories are closed. The main roads are the only ones open and each person is medically inspected at the border before crossing. The borders with the neighboring countries of Iran and Turkey are completely closed to passengers; they are only open for goods, since Iraq and Kurdistan get most of their supplies from these countries. The goods are left a minimum of two days at the border under direct sunlight. They are further stored under heat conditions before Iraqi workers have contact with them.
The main cases of coronavirus, he told me, are currently present in Suleimanieh and Kirkuk with few cases in Erbil (till now).
The Kurdish government took various precautions. There are no Friday prayers for Muslims in mosques; open air prayers with a limited number of people are still allowed. The same applies to Christians — limiting the number of Masses on condition that people sit away from each other and in limited numbers. Priests are distributing Holy Communion in the hand, instead of the mouth; no hand shaking or touching is allowed among the congregation.
Furthermore, the government has banned gatherings for marriages or funerals. In fact, all social or religious gatherings and activities are banned, along with all exhibitions and festivals.
As for the Mar Narsay dispensary, it is continuing to operate, but with strict precautions. The patient’s temperature is tested at the dispensary’s entrance and all the staff are wearing gloves and masks. The dispensary is sterilized continuously to avoid the spread of any virus. The dispensary doctors are conducting weekly workshops in the church halls, as per the government request, to raise awareness on how to deal with this virus.
Sister Luma from the Sisters of Saint Catherine of Sienna in Erbil confirmed what Father Aphrem mentioned. She said that all the schools that they operate are closed. The university where she teaches is closed, as well. The churches are doing only one Mass per week on Sunday, with all possible health precautions that were mentioned.
To date, Lebanon confirms 16 coronavirus cases. The Ministry of Health confirmed that the new COVID-19 patient is a Lebanese woman who had come from the United Kingdom, which has over 100 cases. Two new cases in Lebanon were confirmed Wednesday evening; one of the patients had arrived from Egypt, and the other is an elderly Iranian national who is in critical condition, according to a report from Rafik Hariri University Hospital. All other patients were reported as stable and receiving medical attention in isolation units.
Lebanon is in a state of panic. All educational institutions from schools to universities were affected and have been closed until 8 March. Thus, around 1,000,000 Lebanese students and some 400,000 refugee children are currently being kept out of school. The Ministry of Education issued a circular to schools and other educational institutions about hygienic sterilization and daily cleaning that would be implemented in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Citizens are advised by the Ministry of Health to avoid travel and large crowds. Large public gatherings would be postponed indefinitely, based on the health minister’s recommendations.
All patients are currently in quarantine at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in the capital, Beirut, which has only four certified quarantine rooms, and there are likely not more than 20 or 25 in the entire country. Thus, Lebanon has limited capabilities and is not well equipped to deal with a large outbreak. Right now, the focus is on prevention and awareness.
As for CNEWA/Pontifical Mission: we contacted our local partners — mainly the dispensaries and primary health care centers who are still working on the ground and who now have a big role to play to continue providing preventive measures to vulnerable communities. Thus, all our partners/dispensaries have been equipped with the necessary preventive and hygiene material and kits.
None of our partners — mainly the socio-medical intercommunity dispensary in Nabaa, Saint Anthony dispensary in Rweissat and the Karagheusian social center in Bourj Hammoud — have detected coronavirus among the people they serve.
As for the seminaries: we also contacted the rectors of the two large seminaries in Lebanon —the Saint Ann Great seminary in Rabweh for the Melkites, and the Maronite patriarchal seminary in Ghazir, who informed us that all the seminarians in Lebanon are still residing in their residences and are continuing their religious and spiritual formation. However, all group meetings and conferences have been cancelled in order to avoid being in touch with professors from outside the seminary.
The local church has taken some precautions regarding Masses, as in other countries; Holy Communion is being received by hand, and hand-shaking and hugging during Mass have been banned.