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Coronavirus in Lebanon: Lockdown without a strategy

November 13, 2020

The Lebanese government has ordered a second coronavirus lockdown, forcing shops and restaurants to close and imposing a curfew. But many say it won't be enough to combat the pandemic.

Women with masks
Image: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

The streets of Saida, a town in southern Lebanon, were still crowded, said young Houda Houbeish. People were still running errands. "They're having their last coffees outdoors." By imposing a "complete lockdown," the government in Beirut wants to curb the spread of coronavirus and prevent Lebanon's health system from collapsing, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a couple of days ago.

From Saturday, most businesses, restaurants and public places will have to remain closed until the end of the month. In addition, there will be a curfew in place from 5 p.m. local time.

Read more: How is Beirut's arts scene doing after the explosion?

"I had just found a way of coping with the overall situation in the country. And now we're seeing another lockdown," said Houbeish, a freelance journalist who lives in Saida, which is about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Beirut. "I loved to jog by the seaside, to relieve stress. Thinking of the lockdown means stress to me because I know I'll be confined to my house," she said: "And our lives are really demanding enough."

Life after the blast in Beirut

Many unable to comply with measures

Houbeish's last statement alludes to the most serious economic crisis in the country's history. The COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut, which claimed the lives of more than 190 people, left another 6000 injured and some 300,000 homeless, acutely aggravated the situation.

"Some people are unable to comply with the measures. I'm lucky because I can also work from home, but what about day laborers? They have to work; otherwise they don't have the money to buy food."

Even though the government has announced it would enforce its measures more strictly, Houbeish does not believe that its focus is on Saida: "The focus of everything in this country is Beirut, no matter what's at stake."

Shafik Abdelraham (Private)
Shafik Abdelrahman: 'People need the money to survive'Image: Privat

Shafik Abdelrahman, one of the founders of NGO Utopia, whose head office is in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, agrees. The work of Utopia focuses on social issues and conflicts. If, for instance, a hairdresser doesn't comply and opens, its competitor wouldn't want to miss out on business either. 

"Here in Tripoli, certainly not everybody will be able to comply with the measures. Some businesses opened their doors during the first lockdown. And we don't have checkpoints here that control the curfew," he says. "It's likely that many people will secretly keep their businesses open, and they cannot be blamed for this. They need the money to survive. They don't get any financial support."

Number of infections on the rise

Some 500,000 people live in Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, situated 85 kilometers (53 miles) north of the capital Beirut and, according to a World Bank report, one of the poorest cities along the entire Mediterranean coastline. "A person who believes he or she has contracted the virus and wishes to be tested free of charge sometimes has to wait for two weeks for an appointment in a local hospital," Abdelrahman said.

A hospital room is damaged from a massive explosion on Aug. 4, in Beirut, Lebanon
The explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4 also damaged hospitalsImage: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo/picture alliance

According to the Health Ministry, Lebanon has seen more than 958,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 740 COVID-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. In October alone, 42,000 people contracted the virus and 277 died.

Read more: Lebanon swings between humor and tragedy as economy crumbles

The true figures are probably higher because the country's testing capacities are limited. In the preceding months, the government had imposed local curfews in dozens of towns, but those measures have had little effect. What's more, over 80% of all available ICU hospital beds were already taken in October, and not all hospitals are able to offer isolation wards for COVID-19 patients.

In addition, more and more doctors get infected, and doctors who receive an offer to work abroad, accept it. Reportedly, 400 doctors have already left the country in 2020, chairman of the doctors' association Sharaf Abu Sharaf told the Reuters news agency.

No national strategy

Beirut's government holds the population responsible for the rising infection numbers: "If the Lebanese people comply with the measures and if we succeed in containing the virus, we will save lives," said Hassan Diab.

At the same time, the health sector is underfunded and due to the economic crisis people cannot rely on their salaries or savings. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 55% of the just under six million Lebanese people are living in poverty, meaning that number has doubled compared to the previous year.

At the same time, food prices have increased threefold due to the currency devaluation. "If Lebanon wants to avert a humanitarian disaster, it should ensure people can comply with public health measures without worrying about their next meal," HRW employee Aya Majzoub wrote in a "reliefweb" article.

Read more: Lebanon faces its worst crisis since the civil war

Poverty a bigger concern than COVID

The government has pledged to pay a monthly rate of 400,000 Lebanese Pounds (€50, $59) to merely 240,000 families until the end of 2020 – a drop in the ocean. Instead, the government should provide "an emergency social safety net for a population unable to cope with more financial shocks," according to Majzoub.

"A new lockdown will do little to curb the virus spread if it is not part of a wider national strategy to improve testing and contact tracing, increase hospital capacity, and properly enforce lockdown and social distancing rules," she added.

In Lebanon's capital Beirut, too, people brace themselves for the lockdown. Although many Lebanese believe the current measures are appropriate, they do not think they will be successful. In the country's current situation, many people simply fear poverty more than COVID-19.

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