Since the detection of the first case of Covid-19 in the country on February 21, the municipality of Bsharri has reacted swiftly, taking drastic preventive measures. A crisis management office was immediately created by the union of municipalities, and checkpoints were set up at the entrance of each village in the region where cars were sterilized and temperature checks carried out on passengers whose names and addresses were registered.
Despite the speedy response of the local authorities, the pandemic did not spare this caza (district) in northern Lebanon. After the first case of contamination was reported on March 24, the numbers started to climb rapidly. For a town with 5,000 inhabitants in winter time, the emergence of seventy infections caused some fears and raised many questions. The local authorities then had to resort to a drastic solution: isolate the locality from the rest of the caza, and consequently, from the rest of the country.
Less than a month after the isolation plan was implemented, about twenty-five cases of total recovery were recorded, and about fifteen people infected with the virus are waiting to be tested a second time in order to confirm their recovery, after having been tested negative the first time. During this period, only two new cases were registered (among the medical staff), as well as one death (a nonagenarian man who was already suffering from several illnesses). Eddy Lozom, the director of the governmental hospital of Bsharri, told L'Orient-Le Jour that he expects no new cases in the locality from now until the end of May.
Bsharri was therefore completely isolated from April 12 to May 2. Silence prevailed in this locality, where checkpoints were erected at its entrances and fewer cars were crossing.
The only ones who ventured out were sick people who had to be treated at the governmental hospital, the only medical facility in the whole caza. But they were asked to coordinate in advance with the municipality so to grant them immediate permission at the checkpoint, unless it was an emergency. Food suppliers were among those allowed to enter the village. Their vehicles had to deliver the merchandise in garages transformed into warehouses. Once disinfected, the products were distributed to stores and supermarkets.
Inside Bsharri, traffic dropped to almost zero. The residents stayed home and did not have to rush to supermarkets; their cupboards filled with food supplies like most inhabitants of the Lebanese villages. For Lina Stephan, isolation has changed the life of her children who could no longer play outside with the neighbors. "We rarely go out ... most of the time to the fruits and vegetable vendors or to get bread from the grocery store," she said.
The square of the Saint-Saba (the village intercessor) Church remained deserted. The church, built in the heart of Bsharri, not far from the souk which was once crowded and bustling, was no longer receiving the faithful. "Of all the changes that have shaken the lives of the inhabitants, it is the empty churches that affected them the most," said Mayor Freddy Keyrouz.
To Peter Jabbour, returning to the land was a pastime and a moment of unwinding. "My wife and I haven't left Bsharri for more than two months," he said. "The last visit we paid to my in-laws who live in Sabtiyeh (Metn), seems to have taken place a long time ago! Despite the complete isolation, residents of Bsharri say they are lucky to be living in a place where it is still possible to breathe clean air, even in the most difficult situations and the most uncertain times.
A well thought-out Model
For Keyrouz and Lozom, there is no secret ingredient that allowed Bsharri to deal with the virus. Rather, it is an established model where everything was well thought-out. "Isolation alone is not enough to curb the virus, just as doing a lot of PCR testing alone is also not a solution," said Lozom.
In Bsharri, out of a population of 5,000, more than a thousand PCR tests were carried out. According to Lozom, screening is successful not only thanks to the number of tests done, but above all, due to the tracing of people suspected of carrying the virus.
"When the Ministry of Health carried out 250 random tests, no one tested positive," said Lozom. "On the other hand, out of the hundred tests that the local authorities carried out regularly, dozens of people were found to be carriers of the virus." According to the director of the Bsharri governmental hospital, it is crucial to have the "right people" tested; those who are most at risk of getting infected by the virus. "According to the tracing strategy, the people tested are those who were in contact with carriers of the virus, and therefore suspected of carrying it themselves," he added. These measures have enabled local authorities to place buildings, where contaminated people reside, in quarantine, so to limit as much as possible the spread of the virus within the locality.
The management of the city has also changed. Even the system of garbage collection was modified. According to Keyrouz, special bins have been installed in neighborhoods affected by the epidemic, and garbage was collected from infected people’s homes in separate dump trucks.
For a week now, Bsharri has been cautiously easing its restrictions and deconfinement has been underway. But in a locality where siblings live in the same building, and where families never eat alone, the residents are learning, as best they can, to respect social distancing.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 9th of May)
It took twenty-two days for Bsharri, nestled on the slopes of the Holy Qadisha Valley some 1,500 meters above sea level, to earn the reputation of a model town in the fight against coronavirus. Bsharri, the only locality in Lebanon to have adopted total self-imposed isolation, is now cautiously moving towards gradual deconfinement.
Since the detection of the first case of Covid-19 in the...