by Sunniva Rose — — Lebanon’s Health Ministry reported on Wednesday that 11 passengers who flew back to Lebanon from Spain and France the previous day tested positive for Covid19. These are the first cases of coronavirus among the hundreds of Lebanese who started flying home on Sunday from Africa and Europe on a special repatriation programme at their own expense. “Seven out of 108 passengers were infected with Covid-19 on board of a plane that transported expatriates and arrived yesterday from Madrid. Four passengers out of 118 aboard an aircraft arriving from Paris were also confirmed to be infected,” stated the Health Ministry in a press release. Infected passengers will be taken to hospital while others must self-quarantine for two weeks, the statement said. The Health Ministry will check that those who are not infected respect confinement orders. Lebanese expatriates started flying in from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ivory Coast and Nigeria on Sunday. Passengers all tested negative until Wednesday, according to local authorities.

Beirut’s international airport has been shut since March 18 in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus which has killed 19 people and infected 575 others in the country. The government fears that it would not be able to deal with a spike in coronavirus cases. For the past six months, local hospitals have been unable to import the usual amounts of medical equipment because of a cash crunch caused by the country’s worst financial crisis in history. Alexandre Fourzali, a Lebanese businessman based in Lagos, was on one of the first planes to arrive in Beirut on Sunday. He told The National that he was satisfied with the organisation of the trip despite its high price. “It was very well organised. The crew wore overalls, goggles, masks and gloves,” he said. “You could not walk around the plane without an escort. Toilets were immediately disinfected after use.”

Passengers on his plane were tested for Covid-19 on arrival in Lebanon but people coming from other countries, including Saudi Arabia, were tested before departure by doctors sent by the Lebanese government in advance, said Mr Fourzali. The Health Ministry did not respond to a phone call asking for comment. “We were escorted by groups of seven people from the plane to the airport,” said Mr Fourzali. Groups were tested and then sent off on a special bus together to a nearby hotel for one night, which was included in the ticket price. “Tickets cost $1,800 in economy class, which is on average $1,100 higher than average, and $3,800 in business class instead of $2,400,” said Mr Fourzali, who often flies between Beirut and Lagos. The chairman of Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines, Mohamad El-Hout, said in a press conference on Monday that the company’s monthly losses are currently $35 million. “The evacuation plan will cost the company $20 million. The company will not be able to help but we set prices at their (real) cost,” he said.

Mr Fourzali said that there were about 100 passengers in the plane with him, a lower number than usual. This was so that passengers could leave one seat free between each other to respect social distancing measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, he said. Lebanese citizens in Lagos had to register with their embassy to request permission to return, said Mr Fourzali, who got on the first plane home with his wife because she is pregnant. Priority was also given to the sick and the elderly. Mr Fourzali is now confined with his wife in their home outside Beirut. Just before he spoke to The National on Tuesday, policemen dropped by to check they were staying indoors. “They told us to tell them what we wanted from the supermarket so that they could shop for us,” said Mr Fourzali. “I’m impressed. I did not think they would actually come.”