Lebanon starts two-week coronavirus lockdown

Lebanon starts two-week coronavirus lockdown
A woman wearing a face mask walks past an “I love Beirut” sign, near a shopping district, as Lebanon imposed a partial lockdown for two weeks starting on Friday in an effort to counter the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which have spiralled since the catastrophic explosion at Beirut port, Lebanon August 21, 2020. (Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis)
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Updated 21 August 2020

Lebanon starts two-week coronavirus lockdown

Lebanon starts two-week coronavirus lockdown
  • Country has almost 11,000 cases
  • Pandemic source of poverty, says expert

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.”


Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
Updated 48 sec ago

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
  • Regeni was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared in 2016
  • Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside and bore signs of torture.

CAIRO: Egypt’s Public Prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, on Wednesday handed two official copies of the public prosecution’s report — in Arabic and Italian — on the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni to the Italian envoy in Cairo, Giampaolo Cantini.
The report said there was currently no basis for filing a criminal case because the perpetrator of the crime is unknown, but search authorities have been told to step up their investigation.
Regeni, 28, a Ph.D. student from Cambridge, was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared on Jan. 24, 2016 in central Cairo.
At the time large numbers of police were in the area because of expected protests.
Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside on Feb. 6, 2016. It bore signs of torture.
Police initially said that the student had died in a road accident. But an Italian autopsy showed that his body had cuts, broken bones and other injuries indicating he had been severely beaten.  
Egyptian authorities have denied that police were involved in Regeni’s torture or death.
The case has strained relations between the two countries, with Italy recalling its ambassador in protest. Diplomatic ties were restored in August 2017 after the Italian government said that it would return its envoy and continue the search for the killers.
Also present at the meeting on Wednesday were Giulia Mantini, first secretary at the Italian Embassy, and Badr Abdel Atti, Egyptian assistant foreign minister for European affairs.
The Italian ambassador also received the Kenyan judicial authorities’ response to a request for legal assistance sent by the Egyptian public prosecution.
The request was in response to a Kenyan police officer’s claim that during a security meeting in Nairobi an Egyptian police officer had admitted taking part in Regeni’s abduction. 


Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference

Lebanese army in crisis mode ahead of donor conference
BEIRUT: The Lebanese army is in desperate need of donor assistance to survive one of the world’s worst financial crashes, it said Wednesday ahead of a UN-backed fundraising conference.
Unlike previous donor conferences designed to provide training, weapons or equipment, the virtual meeting France hosts Thursday aims to offer the kind of humanitarian assistance usually reserved for countries grappling with conflict or natural disaster.
“We are in need of food parcels, health care assistance, and support with soldiers’ pay,” a military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The devaluation of the Lebanese pound is affecting soldiers and they are in need of support. Their salaries are not enough any more.”
Lebanon’s economic crisis, which the World Bank has labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, has eaten away at soldiers’ pay and slashed the military’s budget for maintenance and equipment, further threatening the country’s stability.
Already in July 2020, the army said it scrapped meat from the meals it gives for soldiers on duty, due to rising food prices.
“We are doing the impossible to ease the suffering and the economic woes of our soldiers,” army chief Joseph Aoun said in a speech on Tuesday.
“We are forced to turn to allied states to secure aid, and I am ready to go to the end of the world to procure assistance so that the army can stay on its feet.”
Thursday’s conference will see participation from Lebanon’s International Support Group, which includes Gulf states, European countries, the US, Russia and China.
It follows a visit by Aoun last month to Paris,where he warned that the army could face even darker days without emergency support.
“The Lebanese army is going through a major crisis, which could get worse due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in Lebanon, which may worsen when subsidies are lifted,” he said.
He was referring to a government plan to scrap subsidies on essential goods such as fuel, food and flour to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.
The army has been relying heavily on food donations from allied states since last summer’s monster port explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people and damaged swathes of the capital.
France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are among the army’s main food donors.
Iraq and Spain have offered medical assistance.
The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military.
It has bumped up funding for the army by $15 million for this year to $120 million.

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack
Updated 16 June 2021

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack

Palestinian woman shot dead by Israelis in West Bank after attempted attack
  • Palestinian health ministry said the soldiers responded with fire toward the assailant and neutralized her

RAMALLAH: A Palestinian woman was shot dead in the West Bank on Wednesday after attempting to ram Israeli soldiers with her car and attack them with a knife, the army and Palestinian health ministry said.
The Israeli army said “an assailant arrived in her car and attempted to ram into a number of IDF soldiers” near Hizma, south of Ramallah, before she “exited her vehicle with a knife drawn.”
“The soldiers responded with fire toward the assailant and neutralized her,” it said, with the Palestinian health ministry pronouncing her dead.


US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks

 US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks
Updated 16 June 2021

US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks

 US envoy for Yemen heading to Saudi Arabia for ceasefire talks
  • Tim Lenderking will aim to reach a “comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire” in Yemen
  • He has visited the region six times since being appointed by Biden

DUBAI: US President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Yemen will meet with Saudi officials this week in the latest round of diplomatic talks to resolve the years-long war, the State Department said Tuesday.

Tim Lenderking, who has visited the region six times since being appointed by Biden, will aim to reach a “comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire” in Yemen.

In a statement, the State Department said that “Lenderking will travel to Saudi Arabia on June 15-17 where he will meet with senior officials from the Governments of the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Throughout the trip, Special Envoy Lenderking will discuss the latest efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire, which is the only way to bring Yemenis the relief they so urgently need,” the statement added.

Since Biden took office, the US administration has increased mediation efforts between both countries while easing sanctions on the Iran-backed Houthis. Despite his efforts, the Houthis have maintained their attacks on Saudi Arabia, undermining peace talks.

On Sunday, a Houthi explosive drone destroyed part of a school in the kingdom’s southwestern region of Asir.

“The United States also recognizes Saudi Arabia’s efforts to advance implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which is essential to stability, security, and prosperity in the south of Yemen,” Washington said.
“Additionally, Special Envoy Lenderking will continue to press for the free flow of essential commodities and humanitarian aid into and throughout Yemen.”


Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign
Updated 16 June 2021

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign

Reformist drops out of Iran election on last day of campaign
  • Mohsen Mehralizadeh resigned in a letter to Iran’s Interior Ministry
  • Mehralizadeh’s departure likely will boost former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati
TEHRAN: The only reformist candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential election dropped out of the race Wednesday on the last day of campaigning, state media reported, likely trying to boost the chances of a moderate candidate.
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, 64, resigned in a letter to Iran’s Interior Ministry, which runs elections in the Islamic Republic, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates.
Mehralizadeh’s departure likely will boost former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has been running as a moderate and as a stand-in for President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from running again.
Hemmati on Wednesday said that he would select Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either his vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad,” Hemmati wrote on Twitter to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”
The move appeared aimed at consolidating the pro-reform vote just ahead of the poll. Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire from the political establishment in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he offered a blunt appraisal of power struggles in the Islamic Republic.
There was no immediate word from Zarif on Hemmati’s announcement, but the minister has previously indicated a willingness to join the incoming administration.
Mehralizadeh’s withdrawal Wednesday leaves six candidates in the race. Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind the country’s hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, the campaign’s front-runner long cultivated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other hard-line candidates may drop out Wednesday to lend their support to Raisi.
Mehralizadeh served as governor in two Iranian provinces, as the vice president in charge of physical education under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election, but found himself barred from running in 2015.
Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within.
Although a range of prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies registered to run for president, Iran’s clerical vetting body allowed just several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners, to run against Raisi. Owing in part to the disqualifications as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic, voter apathy runs deep. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has most recently projected a 42 percent turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid mounting calls for a boycott.
In his weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Rouhani urged the public to vote, state TV reported.
“It does not do us any good if the election is cold, lacks people, and its ballots are sparsely populated,” said Rouhani.