BEIRUT: Lebanon started a two-week coronavirus lockdown on Friday, as the country’s health minister described the situation as “dangerous and sensitive.”
There are 10,952 cases and a death toll of 113 in a country whose population does not exceed four million.
According to Ministry of Health estimates, Lebanon could record a total of 5,000 new in the next two weeks.
Signs of a surge were evident on Thursday, when more than 600 new cases were recorded and four died due to the pandemic. Half of these new cases resulted from people coming into contact with each other in the chaos that followed a massive explosion at the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan described the situation as being “dangerous and sensitive.”
“We are back to square one, yet with advanced moral and logistic readiness, much higher than when the pandemic first spread, and we are benefitting from expertise and measures that we acquired previously,” he said. “However, this phase requires cooperation and solidarity from all."
The lockdown imposes a curfew between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the closure of commercial and private enterprises, malls, popular markets, tourist facilities, stadiums, sports clubs and gyms, swimming pools, coffee shops, and nightclubs, in addition to banning all gatherings, social occasions and ceremonies.
However the decision excludes restoration work, rubble removal, distributing aid, and relief work in the areas and neighborhoods affected by the port explosion.
But Hassan’s lockdown decision has been criticized by private sector businessmen who are facing a double crisis - an economic meltdown and the explosion that destroyed many Beirut businesses, to the extent that the Lebanese capital turned into “an arid desert,” according to one investor.
Dr. Jassem Ajaka, an economic and strategic expert, said that the lockdown would have huge economic repercussions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has become a cause of impoverishment to the people, for people’s revenues have retreated to a large extent, and it seems that the pandemic will last for a long time, which will further contribute to the spread of poverty,” he told Arab News. “The problem is that Lebanon lacks confidence, whether at the local or foreign level, and we need to create ways to coexist with the virus.”
Ajaka supported Hassan’s argument - that health security superseded everything - but added that general lockdowns based on scientific measures would be more feasible. “Superpowers and big states have reached this dilemma and have succeeded in containing the matter via practical confinement. Isolating a whole country would not work. You could isolate areas with a high number of cases. However, why would you isolate areas with no cases of infection?”
Private sector investors expressed their intention during a meeting on Thursday to ignore the lockdown, considering it “a stupid decision directed against the citizen rather than with him, at a time when people have reached rock bottom.”
Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri, who specializes in infectious diseases, viewed the lockdown as “a mere break” for healthcare personnel to relieve the pressure on them.
“General lockdown is against human nature,” he said. “However, it is a temporary measure before setting a comprehensive plan to counter the spread of the virus.”
On Friday Hassan said that a strategy was being set up for the lockdown period that entailed keeping the airport open but imposing a period of home confinement of between five and 14 days on arrivals, even if their PCR tests were negative.
He added that this strategy would be implemented by the epidemiological surveillance and preventive medical team, district medical doctors, and local police.
“Every person who violates the mandatory lockdown will be slandered in the media, and will be prosecuted if he does not wait for the results of his PCR test, and mixes up with other people in a way that increases the risks of the spread of the pandemic,” he said.
Former Health Minister Dr. Mohamad Jawad Khalifeh said the lockdown should have been coupled with mechanisms to support people affected by it.
The country endured months of economic and financial hardship even before the pandemic arrived on its shores, and the government resigned amid widespread public anger after the Aug. 4 blast.
“Superpowers and states with strong economies tried to resort to general lockdown coupled with support,” he told Arab News. “In spite of this, owners of enterprises could not relaunch their businesses after two months of general mobilization.”
Khalifeh, who is a surgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, added: “The problem in Lebanon is multifaceted, for the economic crisis is much bigger than that of coronavirus - and the catastrophe of the Port of Beirut was even bigger - so how would the Lebanese state arm not get twisted because of these three huge problems? At a time when we are witnessing a floundering in dealing with the pandemic because of the parties that are setting the national plan?”
Ajaka feared that the state would be “incapable” of resolving any of the problems the country was facing.
“September will be a critical month for Lebanon whether regarding COVID-19 or the economic situation,” he said. “If a political solution is not secured, and if needed reforms are not undertaken by the next government, then we head toward complete chaos. The state deficit today is estimated at around LBP3 trillion ($2 billion, based on rates set by the Lebanese Central Bank), and the state can no longer get loans, while nobody accepts dealing with the Banque du Liban (Central Bank) because it is the central bank of a broken state. We need a political miracle, then economic solutions would be possible.”