Lebanese rush to shops, banks, and cafes as 4-day virus lockdown lifted

People walk past open shops in Beirut, as Lebanon is gradually reopening its economy following a shutdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 May 2020

Lebanese rush to shops, banks, and cafes as 4-day virus lockdown lifted

  • PM urges citizens to ‘take responsibility’ for stopping spread of COVID-19 as anti-government protesters return to streets

BEIRUT: The end of Lebanon’s four-day lockdown on Monday saw citizens flood to shops, banks, cafes, and places of work amid government fears that ignoring social distancing guidelines could have serious “consequences” for the country.

Pressures caused by the economic crisis and collapse of the Lebanese pound forced the decision to reopen the country for business a week before Eid Al-Fitr, despite random testing for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) detecting new cases in the capital Beirut and elsewhere.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said: “Each of us must take responsibility for himself.”

Monday also witnessed a resumption of virtual talks between the Lebanese government and representatives of the International Monetary Fund aimed at easing the country’s dire financial situation.

As the latest session of negotiations took place protesters returned to the streets to carry on their anti-government demonstrations, with sit-ins taking place outside the Palace of Justice in Beirut, the Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Many Lebanese emerging from the four-day curfew were reported not to be complying with government requests to wear a face mask and apply social distancing rules to avoid any further spread of COVID-19.

Assem Araji, head of Lebanon’s parliamentary health committee, told Arab News: “Continuing to close the country is no longer useful in light of the suffocating economic crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

“The country had to be reopened because the people want to eat and the unemployment rate touched 70 percent, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“The condition for this return to work was the commitment to preventive measures, but people seem not to want to comply and we cannot put a soldier for every citizen to force them to comply. It is the responsibility of individuals to take care of themselves, their families and all who come into contact with them, and I fear that recklessness will lead to consequences.”

Continuing to close the country is no longer useful in light of the suffocating economic crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

Assem Araji, Head of Lebanon’s parliamentary health committee

The end of the lockdown coincided with the release of the results of random tests conducted by medical teams in Beirut and other regions to help determine the epidemiological trend of the virus.

Seventeen Syrian and foreign workers living in a building in the Ras El Nabeh area of Beirut were found to have contracted COVID-19 and were immediately placed under home quarantine by the Internal Security Forces. And a soldier from the municipality of Libbaya in the western Bekaa district was also reported to have been infected with the virus.

In the towns and villages of Akkar in northern Lebanon, there was heavy traffic on roads as food stores, cafes and restaurants reopened with many people again reported to be ignoring preventive measures to control COVID-19.

Sobhi Saqr, mayor of Hermel in the northern Bekaa, said there was confusion due to the government’s “lack of clarity” over the lifting of restrictions.

The president of Nabatieh Traders’ Association, Mohammed Kassem Melli, said: “The agony in the commercial sector has prompted us to pressure the concerned actors to allow us to reopen the markets, and the communications succeeded in allowing the opening of the commercial markets throughout the week leading up to Eid Al-Fitr.”

Chlorinated swimming pools have been given the green light to reopen and the Minister of Education has recommended ending the academic year and promoting students to the next level, according to certain regulations.

Head of the Syndicate of Seaside Resort Operators, Jean Beiruti, said the resumption of work would “be without profit, but rather a continuity, in the hope that the sector will survive in light of the economic crisis, which may not provide the option to go to the swimming pools for many.”

Wael Kassab, a member of the Merchants’ Association in the southern city of Sidon, said: “There was a remarkable movement of shoppers inside Sidon’s commercial market, but the majority of customers were surprised by the high prices. They were not eager to buy except in small amounts in shops selling kids’ clothes.”

Araji said that it was likely that the number of infected people in Lebanon was double that of declared figures because “about 80 percent of people do not show symptoms of having COVID-19. We did not conduct PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests for all people, and therefore what the results show indicates that the number is greater. This applies to the whole world.”

He added that over the three months since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Lebanon, doctors and health teams throughout the country had learnt how to deal with the virus and had shared their experiences. “But if the virus mutates, our capabilities decline, and we go for the herd immunity.”


New board of directors appointed to run Lebanon’s ‘corrupt’ state power company

Updated 08 July 2020

New board of directors appointed to run Lebanon’s ‘corrupt’ state power company

  • Regulation of electricity sector a key condition of international bailout for collapsing economy

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s government finally appointed a new board of directors on Tuesday to control the state-owned electricity company.
Electricite du Liban (EDL) has long been mired in allegations of corruption and fraud. Its annual losses of up to $2 billion a year are the biggest single drain on state finances as Lebanon faces economic collapse and the plunging value of its currency.
Reform of the electricity sector has been a key demand of the International Monetary Fund and potential donor states before they will consider a financial bailout.
“Lebanon’s electricity policy has been inefficient and ineffective for decades — always on the brink of collapse, but staying afloat with last minute patchwork solutions,” said Kareem Chehayeb of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC.
“The economic crisis has made fuel imports more expensive, causing a shortage, with external generator providers hiking their prices or seeking business in Syria. It is a wake-up call to decades of overspending and poor planning of a basic public service.”
The World Bank has described the electricity sector in Lebanon as “tainted with corruption and waste,” and the IMF said “canceling the subsidy to electricity is the most important potential saving in spending.”
Electricity rationing was applied for the first time to hospitals and the law courts, but Minister of Energy Raymond Ghajar said: “The first vessel loaded with diesel for power plants has arrived, and as of Wednesday the power supply will improve.”
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised the Lebanese people on Tuesday that they would see the results of government efforts to resolve the country’s financial chaos “in the coming weeks.”
Addressing a Cabinet meeting, Diab said: “The glimmer of hope is growing.” However, the appointment of an  EDF board of directors was criticized by opposition politicians. Former prime minister Najib Mikati said the appointments meant “the crime of wrong prevailing over right … is being repeated.”