Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor

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A Lebanese protester sits in front of riot police in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown. (AFP)
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Syrian refugees walk out of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Syrian refugees watch as sanitation workers spray disinfectant near a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on March 22, 2020 amid the spread of COVID-19. (AFP)
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A Lebanese protester, wearing a protective mask bearing a fist (the sign of the anti-government movement), is pictured during a demonstration in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Lebanese demonstrators chant anti-government slogans outside central bank headquarters in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Syrian refugees look from the window of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Syrian refugees look from the windows of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Syrian refugees stand in the balcony of a building under construction which they have been using as shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Palestinian tailors make protective face masks with the patterns of the Kaffiyeh, the chequered scarf that is worn by Palestinians to symbolise struggle, at a workshop in the refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, south of the Lebanese capital Beirut on March 27, 2020. (AFP)
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Lebanese demonstrators chant anti-government slogans while they walk through the streets of the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 01 August 2020

Perfect storm of crises leaves Lebanese desperate, hungry and poor

  • Protests resume as food prices soar, currency weakens and coronavirus strains the health system
  • Lebanese pound dropped to record lows on the ‘black market” last week, reaching 4,200 to the dollar

DUBAI: As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the wealth and health of nations, one small Levantine country in particular has its work cut out.

A “revolution of the hungry people” is convulsing Lebanon as food prices skyrocket and the value of the pound plummets, trapping 6.8 million people between economic ruin and political chaos.

Almost every day, demonstrators across the country are defying the COVID-19 lockdowns to vent their fury over the worsening situation.




A protester, wearing a face mask with the colours of the Lebanese flag, takes part in an anti-government demonstration in a vehicle convoy in the capital Beirut on April 22, 2020. (AFP

They are braving bullets to burn tires to block roads in protest against the ruling elite’s handling of the crisis.

To all intents, the street protests that kicked off in October 2019 have made a comeback as people look for ways to make their voices heard despite the exigencies of the health emergency.

Some protesters in the capital Beirut have attempted to maintain social distance by holding protests in their vehicles and wearing medical masks.




A Lebanese protester smashes the facade of a bank at Al-Nour square following the funeral of a fellow protester in Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli, on April 28, 2020. (AFP)

A number of commercial stores and supermarkets on Monday joined Lebanon’s long list of shuttered businesses – victims of the relentless erosion of people’s purchasing power.

The pound has been on the slide since October in tandem with a financial crisis that has driven up the prices of essential items beyond the reach of the average Lebanese.

Lebanese banks have responded to the challenge by setting an exchange rate that is more than 50 percent weaker than the currency’s official pegged rate and locking depositors out of their US-dollar savings.

A number of money exchange shops have been ordered to close for not abiding by the country’s Central Bank rules of selling and buying US dollars at 3,200 Lebanese pounds.

The pound (or lira) dropped to record lows on the black market last week, reaching 4,200 to the dollar before currency dealers went on strike.

The dismal outlook has been made worse by the COVID-19 outbreak, the impact of which is almost impossible to estimate despite the precautionary measures taken by the government.




A Lebanese policeman reacts as his jeep is engulfed in flames during clashes between protesters and Lebanese soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 28, 2020. (AFP)

“The government’s uncoordinated and inadequate response to the pandemic has further eroded public trust in its ability to help people weather this pandemic and pull Lebanon out of its worst economic crisis in decades,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Months before the COVID-19 outbreak, the World Bank predicted that the portion of Lebanon’s population living below the poverty line would rise from 30 percent to 50 percent in 2020.”

Majzoub pointed out that the virus crisis and its associated shutdown measures were bound to further increase poverty and economic hardship.

She noted the direct link between the pound’s loss of nearly half its value in April and the inflation rate, which the Lebanese Ministry of Finance estimates will reach 27 percent in 2020.




A Lebanese protester sits in front of riot police in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown. (AFP)

“Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Moucharafieh admitted on April 14 that between 70 to 75 percent of Lebanese citizens now need financial assistance,” Majzoub added.

Earlier this month, HRW had warned that more than half of Lebanon’s residents were at risk of going hungry due to the government’s failure to implement a robust, coordinated plan to provide assistance to families who have lost their livelihoods.

No sooner had authorities slightly eased the COVID-19 lockdown measures than clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

As dozens of men smashed the fronts of local banks and set fire to an army vehicle, the security forces responded with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.

Amid the growing political tensions and economic hardship, many suspect the small number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lebanon conceals the actual picture.




A young Syrian girl is pictured at a refugee camp in the village of Mhammara in the northern Lebanese Akkar region on March 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“I don’t know what the future holds. No one knows,” said Dr. Naji Aoun, head of the department of infectious disease at Clemenceau Medical Center in Beirut.

“Seeing what is happening in Europe, Lebanon is a small country, so it may not apply to us. It could be different on our scale. But my thoughts (go out) to the Syrian refugees. Who will take care of them?”

Of Lebanon’s 5.9 million residents, about 1.5 million are Syrian refugees – the highest number per capita ratio in the world.

FASTFACT

NUMBERS

87% Refugees in Lebanon who lack food.

$5.7bn Money moved out of banks in January and February 2020.

45% Population below poverty line in 2020.

Sources: Lebanon government, World Bank, International Rescue Committee

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the refugees’ socio-economic situation is becoming increasingly dire by the day owing to income loss.

Nonprofit organizations are aware of the gravity of the situation but there are limits to what they can do.

“You can’t offer medical services (as they won’t be) accepted in hospitals, which is an issue,” Aoun said.

With no medical insurance or international aid, the humanitarian crisis can only get worse, he added.




Dr Naji Aoun, Infectious Disease Specialist at Clemenceau Medical Center in Beirut. (Supplied)

“This will weigh a lot on the refugees. NGOs don’t know what to do. They don’t have any resources and the government can’t help them either because it is bankrupt. They can’t help their own people.”

Aoun is one of the many health workers who have been devoting their time to treat patients, often free of cost.

“We need more support for nurses and doctors because we are going to get infected or bring the infection home with us. This is what happened in Italy and in China, so we need more support – moral, social, psychological and financial – from our government and our society.

“Life is important to everyone and we are dedicating ours to help the community,” he added.

Dr. Clara Chamoun, a pulmonary, sleep and critical care medicine specialist at the Clemenceau Medical Center, said the situation across Lebanon was grim because the COVID-19 outbreak had come amid a severe economic crisis.




Workers disinfect the Wavel camp (also known as the Jalil Camp) for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, on April 22, 2020. (AFP)

“It is harder to convince people that they need to stick to quarantine rules because they live on a daily basis,” she told Arab News.

“We started from a place where we were already facing a shortage of basics. And now, we have got a huge hit due to a lack in ventilators, face masks and alcohol solutions. And there’s no help.”

Proper hygiene is especially difficult in refugee camps, where overcrowding is common and access to basics, such as clean water, soap and detergents, is not a given.

“Those people aren’t going to be in contact with civilians in Beirut, but they are in contact with each other and if one of them is (infected), it would lead to a rapid spread,” Chamoun said.

Earlier this month, the UNHCR announced it required more than $30 million to cover Lebanon’s additional health needs due to the pandemic.




A Syrian refugee receives sanitisation and cleaning supplies from a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 20, 2020. (AFP)

The funds would help expand the Ministry of Public Health’s hotline capacity, procure thermometers for detection, hygiene items for refugees and protective equipment for frontline responders.

The plans also include establishing isolation shelters for 5,600 people, expanding hospital-bed capacity by 800 and intensive care units by 100, conducting 1,200 diagnostic tests and arranging intensive care treatment for 180 refugees.

The UNHCR’s program requires a further $55 million to meet the secondary healthcare needs – both related to COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 – of refugees.

Aoun appealed for international solidarity in providing succor to migrants and refugees in Lebanon.

“They may say it’s not their problem, but the problem is getting worse. No one will go blaming the international community nor the Lebanese authorities – it’s a worldwide problem.

“If countries have medication, they will prioritize it for their people. Europe closed its borders so they prioritized their own population, but we can’t do the same with the refugees,” he said.

With hunger, poverty, joblessness and a deadly pandemic staring Lebanese in the face, Chamoun said the resilience of the people was the country’s only hope.

“We have been through a lot already. But this is truly the biggest challenge,” she said.


Germany warns dual nationals off Iran travel after arrest

Updated 59 min 54 sec ago

Germany warns dual nationals off Iran travel after arrest

BERLIN: Germany has warned citizens who also hold Iranian nationality against travelling to Iran after a dual national was arrested in October.
The foreign ministry did not name the detained citizen, but she has been identified as Nahid Taghavi by her daughter Mariam Claren.
"There have been several arrests of German-Iranian dual nationals in the past -- including most recently in October 2020, often without comprehensible reasons," said the German foreign ministry in an online update of its travel warning.
"Further detentions of people who also possess Iranian citizenship cannot be ruled out," it added, stressing therefore that "unnecessary travel by people who are also Iranian nationals is strongly discouraged".

 


Taghavi is a 66-year-old architect, who is reportedly being held in solitary detention in Iran.
Her daughter Claren said she has had no access to her since October 15, a day before she was believed to have been arrested.
Human rights group IGFM said Taghavi should be viewed as a political prisoner because she has for years been fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women's rights and freedom of expression.