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Lebanon’s pandemic warrior restores public sector confidence


Beirut Rafic Hariri University Hospital Director Firass Abiad speaks during an interview with AFP in his office within the coronavirus department

Beirut Rafic Hariri University Hospital Director Firass Abiad speaks during an interview with AFP in his office within the coronavirus department

BEIRUT – Dr Firass Abiad was a little-known director of the Beirut hospital until the coronavirus pandemic pushed him into the spotlight and restored at least some confidence in the much-misused public sector in Lebanon.

At a time when the country is embroiled in its deepest economic crisis in decades and shaken by fleeing inflation and violent street protests, Abiad has emerged as a comforting voice of reason amidst chaos.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, his Rafic Hariri University Hospital was synonymous with unpaid wage strikes and was seen as the last resort for the most needy patients without health insurance.

But since the first case of the coronavirus was reported in Lebanon in February, Abiad Hospital has taken the central stage in fighting a disease that has infected 4,885 people and cost 62 lives across the country.

His fruitful Twitter feed has become a point of reference for Lebanese for its upcoming daily updates and comments on the pandemic.

On a typical work day, 52-year-old Abiad inspected an outside testing center and then checked in via video call with his staff, wearing full protective clothing inside the coronavirus ward.

Playing down his new fame, a local equivalent to that of U.S. infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci, a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) spoke to AFP in a measured tone.

“I’m just doing what should be expected of all public sector employees,” said the gastrointestinal and bariatric surgeon, who has run the hospital since 2015.

He should be the center of attention on his team, he argued, and for a sparsely functioning institution “in a place he lacks.”

– The Impact of Twitter –

The virus struck as Lebanon plunged into its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, and authorities appear paralyzed by the endless political stalemate and deteriorating public services.

As the power outage reached about 15 hours a day in July and the fuel for the hospital’s generators began to run out, Abiad was forced to close two of his six operating theaters and postpone operations.

But just a tweet from him was enough to spark a host of donations.

In a country steeped in sectarianism and chronicle, Abiad has been held up as an example of a public sector employee who puts the interests of others.

After images circulated online last month of a crowd of people lined up to be tested in hospital, Abiad quickly acknowledged the need for better social distancing.

Activist Dona Maallawi, 29, praised Abiada’s non-meaningless communication style, saying “he releases close to daily updates on the situation, without embellishments, but rather with clear knowledge of details”.

The hospital director himself says he finds such assessments “annoying” and is disappointed with such low public sector expectations.

In the midst of his duties, Abiad takes to Twitter to spread tips on how to avoid a worst-case scenario that could overtake Lebanese hospitals, correcting any misinformation with tact and diplomacy.

With a few other credible comments available, the local media spread his translations mostly in English to Arabic.

Christophe Martin, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Lebanon, said Abiad had become an “influencer”.

“He is today one of those few Lebanese citizens who works in the public domain who truly and honestly works for his best (interests),” he said.

“A person should only read his topics on Twitter to understand how much intelligence, reflection he brings to his overall communication.”

– ‘Treatment of the poor’ –

Abiad said his move five years ago from the prestigious and well-equipped AUB center to an unprotected state hospital was not an easy solution.

But he saw it as his “duty” to take over the running of the ICRC-backed hospital, Rafic Hariri, as he was “the main one treating the working class and the poor”.

As daily affairs hit a new record high of 224 on Friday, even after authorities had re-imposed a partial blockade, he urged Lebanese on Twitter to take the blow “very seriously”.

“The measures must be implemented without exception,” he warned. “The public must agree for its own good. If we make a mistake, it will be a very big drop.”

Speaking to AFP, he demanded that better-equipped private hospitals better and more meet their share of the burden, despite their fears this could mean even more unpaid bills from the state.

The father of three fears renewed pressure on the health sector during a possible rise in autumn cases – but remains optimistic about Lebanon’s withdrawal if adequate measures are taken.

Until then, Abiad said, he would be comforted in the solidarity between his staff and the daily “small victories”.

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