Beirut explosions one year on: Supplying a lifeline to Lebanon
Supply and Logistics Officer in Beirut, Rabab Saffideen, recounts how UNICEF mobilized its supply operations to replenish critical supplies, restore the cold chain and rebuild warehouse facilities.
The devastating explosions that ripped through Beirut, Lebanon, on 4 August 2020 left thousands of people dead or injured, among them many children. Alongside its partners, UNICEF moved swiftly to support a traumatized population, with life-saving supplies making up a critical part of the immediate response. Within a couple of days of the explosion, these supplies arrived in-country – and, by the end of August 2020, UNICEF had already dispatched 67 tons of medical, health, hygiene and nutrition supplies to Beirut, either through special airlifts or via commercial cargo routes.
Prepositioned supplies of life-saving products played their part in the early phase of the UNICEF response. Among them were 1.75 million vaccine doses and 300 cubic metres of medicine salvaged from the Ministry of Public Health’s warehouses near the explosion site. Other items, including infection protection and control (IPC) kits and hygiene supplies, were procured locally wherever possible. Despite global supply scarcity, hundreds of thousands of PPE items were procured and delivered by UNICEF within a couple of days of the explosions.
Rabab Saffideen, Supply and Logistics Officer in Beirut, describes how UNICEF mobilized its supply operations to respond to a sudden-onset emergency of a massive scale that came on top of a pandemic and an unfolding economic and financial crisis in Lebanon.
The first hours
I had just called it a day, arriving home from work, when one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history ripped through Beirut at 6:07 in the evening. Minutes later, I was back on the road – this time on my way to the vicinity of the explosion site, heeding a call from the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health’s warehouse manager who confirmed that the Ministry-run warehouses were completely destroyed. Together, we worked against the clock as the night set in, coordinating the transport of heat-sensitive and precarious supplies, including routine vaccines as well as medication.
By 11 p.m., we had managed to salvage 1.75 million doses of vaccines and some 300 cubic metres of medicine, safely transporting them to UNICEF warehouses where they have been properly stored and made readily accessible to public health facilities.
With this swift action, we ensured the continuation of immunization campaigns across Lebanon. By midnight, I called it a day again – but this time with a heavy heart. Some things cannot be saved; lives were lost, homes were destroyed and whatever sense of security we had was gone.
The first days
Working closely with UNICEF Supply Division, we immediately replenished a significant amount of supplies that were lost in the explosions, including newly received immunization supplies that were under clearance at the port. Colleagues in Supply Division went above and beyond to secure PPE items for Lebanon, despite global supply shortages. As COVID-19 cases soared following the explosions and with hospitals filled with patients injured by the explosions, PPE items to protect health workers were urgently needed. It was only a matter of a couple of days before the first PPE shipment from the UNICEF Global Supply Hub in Copenhagen arrived in Lebanon on a charter flight.
More shipments dispatched from Copenhagen soon followed. Those included, among other supplies, nutrition supplies for children. We also worked with the Ministry of Public Health to conduct an urgent forecast to identify the needs for routine vaccines and replenish what is needed to ensure uninterrupted immunization campaigns.
The first six months
People in Lebanon lost so much on 4 August 2020, and many could not return home given the extensive damage done to infrastructure and water systems. Within one hundred days of the disaster, together with partners, we installed nearly 5,000 water tanks including in three heavily affected hospitals and we reestablished water supply connections for over 4,000 households to meet residents’ right for clean water. In the interim, we also procured and delivered hygiene kits for people who lost their homes.
After having subsided for years, cases of malnutrition among children sharply rose following the explosions, reaching levels not seen since the first influx of Syrian Refugees to Lebanon in 2011. We addressed the nutritional needs of over 22,000 of the most vulnerable children through the supply of Vitamin A supplements, high energy biscuits and emergency food rations.
One year on
Over the past year, we have been supporting the Ministry of Public Health in the reconstruction of a new and improved warehouse for medical equipment in the port area – a critical point of entry and storage for supplies that was heavily damaged by the explosions. The explosions destroyed around nine cold rooms in the Ministry’s warehouses. We have since reallocated UNICEF-procured cold rooms from other areas in the country to the Government-run public hospital in Beirut where vaccine stock is now stored. We also provided fuel to guarantee their proper functioning.
To maintain uninterrupted routine immunization, UNICEF installed two additional cold-rooms at the Government-supported hospital in Beirut. UNICEF has long supported Lebanon’s cold chain, procuring around 800 fridges and 400 solar-powered fridges in addition to cold rooms. This year, we have secured 3 additional prefabricated cold rooms that arrived from Copenhagen in July 2021, and we are currently supporting the construction of 11 built-in cold-rooms in the Ministry’s planned warehouse facility. Given power shortages in the country, the facility will be solar-powered.
We have also conducted effective vaccine management (EVM) and cold-chain assessment beyond Beirut to support the health system in Lebanon and identify the gaps for improvement. We have also supported the Government with the COVID-19 pandemic response, where we conducted a nation-wide assessment of over 50 hospitals to check the cold chain infrastructure and identify the cold chain capacity of the country. While private hospitals have ultra-cold chain, some public hospitals do not. UNICEF installed three ultra-cold chain rooms in the Government-supported hospital in Beirut, which proved to be a critical step in preparation for the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines procured through the COVAX Facility.
Supply operations – from replenishing critical supplies and restoring the cold chain to helping rebuild destroyed warehouse facilities – are supplying a lifeline to Lebanon that is now more critical than ever. Children in Lebanon need our support.
A shorter version of this story and interview appeared in the 2020 Supply Annual Report on pages 44 and 51 respectively.