Lebanon: Kuwait evacuates nationals, one Saudi man in Beirut has COVID-19

Employees from a disinfection company sanitize a bench as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Beirut, March 5, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 March 2020

Lebanon: Kuwait evacuates nationals, one Saudi man in Beirut has COVID-19

  • Health Minister: Rise in number of COVID-19 cases to 333 ‘not catastrophic’
  • Ministry of Social Affairs prepares food baskets and cleaning products for most vulnerable

BEIRUT: The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lebanon rose to 333 on Wednesday, an increase of 29 cases on the previous day, according to the daily report issued by the Ministry of Health.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, “This increase in the number of cases is normal and not catastrophic.”

He added that the nationwide lockdown issued by the government ends on March 29, but may be extended “based on field data.”

Lebanese Health Ministry on Wednesday night announced two more deaths due to coronavirus.

Lebanon closed its schools and universities on Feb. 29. Restaurants and cafés were ordered to close on March 11 and the government announced a full lockdown, meaning citizens were told to stay at home, on March 15. Lebanon’s borders were closed on March 18.

Hospitals and health authorities continue to prepare for the spread of COVID-19 to get worse, increasing the capacity of hospitals and allocating additional places to quarantine those who are infected.

The data issued by the National Disaster Management Operations Room at the Cabinet Office shows that most of the COVID-19 cases are in Byblos, Baabda, Beirut, Keserwan, and Matn.

Among the confirmed cases in Lebanon are one Saudi, one Qatari, one French, three Egyptian, one Austrian, three Syrian, two Dutch, two Sudanese, one British, two Bangladeshi, two Ethiopian, one Togan, and two Iranian nationals.  

Both Ukraine — on Tuesday — and Kuwait — on Wednesday — sent planes to Lebanon to pick to transport their citizens back to their homelands, with the permission of the Lebanese authorities.

Foreign Minister Nassif Youssef Hitti said calls are being made to governments of countries where there are Lebanese students unable to return home. The goal is to provide them with support in light of the measures taken by Lebanese banks to prevent the transfer of dollar deposits abroad.

A hotline has been allocated for all Lebanese embassies abroad to listen to the requests of Lebanese citizens, he explained, adding that information is available on embassy websites to help the Lebanese abroad.

Hitti said: “We endeavor to develop a social safety net, and our embassies call on all Lebanese expatriates to provide financial and in-kind assistance to people inside Lebanon as well. There have been positive responses, and several accounts have been created for donating to Lebanon. We will do what is necessary to raise the bar for transfers to Lebanese people, especially students who are stuck abroad.”

While home quarantine has meant thousands of Lebanese people are unable to work, Minister of Social Affairs Ramzi Musharrafieh announced the launch of a rapid response plan, which includes the development of a database to identify those most in need of the ministry’s assistance. He said the assistance — consisting of food and cleaning supplies — would initially be provided to the most vulnerable, including seniors, people with special needs, families of landmine casualties, families of public-vehicle drivers, families of fishermen, families of prisoners, and families of laid-off workers.

“The Lebanese army will carry out the process of packaging and sanitizing the rations and distributing them to beneficiaries in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs,” he added.

The body of a Lebanese man who died in Qatar was repatriated this week. Saad, 38 — whose family have asked that his family name not be disclosed) — survived cancer as a teenager. He worked in Doha and lived with his family, who were unable to accompany his body back to Lebanon. Saad was reportedly suffering from chest pains but refused to go to hospital as he was worried that he would contract COVID-19 and he hoped the pain would go away on its own. He died of a heart attack.

Hagia Sophia verdict seen as Erdogan’s attempt to ‘mask economic failure’

Updated 11 July 2020

Hagia Sophia verdict seen as Erdogan’s attempt to ‘mask economic failure’

  • President signs decree to reopen heritage site — Roman Empire’s first cathedral — as mosque

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree on Friday to reopen Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO world heritage site that was the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral, constructed in the sixth century CE, as a mosque.

UNESCO had previously urged Turkish authorities “to engage in dialogue before taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site.”

The long-predicted move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to rally conservative nationalist voters around the ruling party and its nationalist coalition partner ahead of snap elections that many have forecast will happen next year. Several commentators, however, doubt the efficacy of the move given that — under the current economic conditions — the majority of the Turkish people are focused on more urgent matters.

Around 55 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Turkey’s Metropoll in June said the main reason for announcing the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be to distract from debates on Turkey’s economic crisis and to boost the government’s hand ahead of a snap election.

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the move is another step in Erdogan’s attempt to impose his “brand of conservative Islam,” in direct opposition to the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular revolution.

Muslims gather for evening prayers in front of the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, after a court decision that paves the way for it to be converted from a museum back into a mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 10, 2020. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

“Just as Ataturk ‘un-mosqued’ Hagia Sophia 86 years ago, and gave it museum status to underline his secularist revolution, Erdogan is remaking it a mosque to underline his religious revolution,” Cagaptay said.

The reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, regardless of domestic and international criticism, overlaps with Erdogan’s desire to be the “new sultan” of the country, he continued.

“Erdogan is already patronizing the construction of two mosques in Istanbul. He wants to leave a political and religious imprint behind, and Hagia Sophia completes his ‘trilogy’ of mosques,” he said.

But, Cagaptay noted, there is a tactical aspect to the announcement as well.

“As a nativist-populist leader, Erdogan hopes to rally his base by underlining their ‘victim’ narrative — saying, ’How dare these secularists deny us, pious Muslims, the liberty to pray at Hagia Sophia?’” he said.

Cagaptay, along with other experts, believes any boost Erdogan may enjoy following the announcement will likely be undermined by Turkey’s ongoing economic challenges, including high inflation and unemployment rates.

Last year, Hagia Sophia drew 3.7 million tourists to its famed dome, rust-colored walls and ornamental minarets. But many believe Erdogan’s latest move will hurt the country’s popularity as a tourist destination.

“Turkey’s global brand as a Muslim-majority society that is open to its Christian past is going to be irreversibly damaged,” Cagaptay said.

“One of the effects of the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque will be a spike in Islamophobia in the West and elsewhere. Which, of course, Erdogan will then use to his advantage,” Dimitar Bechev of the Atlantic Council tweeted.