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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.