Coronavirus Is Pushing Lebanon Over the Brink

It’s time to add an uncontrolled outbreak to the country’s long list of woes.

A woman carries a diabled man wearing a protective face mask the Sabra neighbourhood of Beirut where many Palestinian refugees still live, amid measures coordinated with Palestinian security forces to shut down all shops in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus disease, on March 22, 2020.
A woman carries a diabled man wearing a protective face mask the Sabra neighbourhood of Beirut where many Palestinian refugees still live, amid measures coordinated with Palestinian security forces to shut down all shops in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus disease, on March 22, 2020. ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Lebanon surprised the world earlier this year when, despite being in the midst of a political and economic crisis, it seemed to have warded off the mayhem coronavirus was unleashing elsewhere. But since the explosion at Beirut’s port ripped through the city two months ago and plunged hundreds of thousands more people into extreme poverty, the virus has made a comeback. And this time around—with health care infrastructure already on the verge of being overwhelmed, and a broader political crisis that has doctors and nurses pondering whether to leave the country entirely—it will be much harder to control the contagion.

In February, days after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Lebanon, businesses proactively shut shops. When a lockdown was imposed mid-March, people seemed willing to obey the rules. A political uprising was underway but even protesters halted their demonstrations, realizing that if the virus spread they could not rely on a state they believed to be inefficient and corrupt. One of the problems that had ignited the protests in the first place was a clientelistic health care system in urgent need of reform. Self-discipline was seen as the only remedy.

The blast, however, forced people to throw caution to the wind. It left entire neighborhoods in ruins and required an emergency response. The government was characteristically absent from relief efforts and so people poured in from different parts of the country to help pull the living from under the rubble, attend funerals, and sweep the streets. It was almost as if the catastrophe had caused collective amnesia, and people forgot about the threat wielded by COVID-19.

Lebanon has witnessed a 220 percent increase in coronavirus cases ever since. The total number of infections has crossed 45,000 and more than 400 people have died. Compared to other countries where many more have perished these figures may seem small, but for a country of just 4 million, teetering on the edge of chaos, they are an existential threat. “Coming days and weeks will be tough,” warned Firass Abiad, a surgeon and manager of Rafik Hariri Hospital, the government’s main health care center for coronavirus patients.

Three doctors at three separate hospitals providing COVID-19 care on the front line said that their hospitals were now at capacity. They are worried that patients will soon outnumber beds and that the death rate will inevitably spike. They added that a steady infection rate of a 1,000-plus a day crossed a crucial epidemiological benchmark, and revealed that containment efforts were failing.

Moreover, many doctors and nurses who are paid in Lebanese pounds felt poorly compensated as the currency devalued by 80 percent over the past year, sending prices but not wages shooting higher. Some are now planning to relocate to the West or the Gulf where the remuneration is substantially higher. The fact that impoverished Lebanese from the other end of the social spectrum last month are now trying to flee the country, taking migrant boats to Cyprus, received broad publicity last month when several people (including two toddlers) died on a fishing vessel found floating out to sea. The incident reflected growing desperation in Lebanese society, which has not excluded those in the higher social brackets like healthcare workers.

“The blast did it for me,” said a leading pulmonary and critical care specialist at one the most prestigious hospitals in Beirut, who is caring for patients fighting the coronavirus. “My salary was reduced to 20 percent of what I was paid before, but when my daughters got caught in the blast it made me ask, ‘What is important to me?’ That is when we decided to leave for the U.S.”

Abiad was most concerned about the flight of trained nurses and deemed it the biggest challenge in the battle against the pandemic. “We do not have many well-trained nurses in Lebanon and we have heard that many of those we have are planning to leave because their salaries have depreciated significantly,” he said. “I think a lack of trained professionals is going to be the biggest problem as the infections increase, which appears imminent.”

The blast rendered at least three hospitals inoperable and damaged three more, further straining the provision of essential services. Lebanon’s government has reportedly tried to strike a deal with some private hospitals to make beds available to cater to an increasing number of cases. But health experts said all efforts would fall short if the people failed to emulate the behavior of compliance to containment rules they exhibited back in March.

This week Lebanon’s government imposed a local lockdown in 111 villages and towns. This step is meant to let most people continue to earn their living while also attempting to reduce the chances of an all-out coronavirus disaster. But it is uncertain whether it will work. John Anton, a cafe owner in Gemmayzeh, which is not under a lockdown yet because it was fatally damaged in the explosion, said he didn’t feel any safer in partial lockdown. “Someone from within one of those 100 locked areas can come here, how will it protect us?” he said. “And the workers here, hardly anyone wears a mark.” Only 50 percent of Lebanese are believed to be wearing masks, according to Abiad.

The Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-clubs & Pastries in Lebanon called for a lockdown in February even before the government, and even though it meant incurring heavy losses for an industry that was already in distress. But the damage caused by the blast weakened their resolve. The Syndicate estimated that the reconstruction of the restaurant sector will cost no less than $1 billion (in U.S. dollars). In August, they refused outright to follow a new two-week government lockdown order. “It was because other sectors remained open,” said Maya Bekhazi of the syndicate. When asked if the syndicate will obey the latest instructions she first seemed uncertain but later backed them. “In view of the increasing number of cases, we have to abide by the lockdown measures and allow for the coronavirus committee to do its work properly.”

Mired in a multitude of crises, the miseries of the Lebanese have been compounded by the surge in coronavirus cases. Nabil Haddad’s art deco building in the heart of Gemmayzeh used to be a sought-after address in the neighborhood, until the blast. Now full of debris, the building needs expensive refurbishment that may cost half a million dollars. The state has not offered him help but he is more irked by the current capital controls—his bank does not let him withdraw more than $2,500 a month. “Wood, glass, tiles, paints, concrete are all scarce and must be paid for in USD cash,” he said. “So far I have not been offered or received help from any side.” On top of the burden of procuring the material, and in his mid-seventies, Haddad has now tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Beirut port explosion did not just inflict financial costs, but also and perhaps more importantly has crushed the famous Lebanese sense of resilience. Many talk of a loss of hope. It is almost as if the Lebanese have reached an undetermined threshold of suffering and crossed over to despair. In truth, there is no end in sight to their plight, as the political elite remain reluctant to usher in reforms, a precondition for an international financial bailout. The prime minister and the replacement prime minister-designate have both resigned since the blast and yet the political overlords, warlords from the civil war era, continue to cling to power and carry on their sect-based politics with little seeming compunction.

Abdul Rahman Bizri, an infectious disease specialist and member of the emergency committee on coronavirus, said the government reopened the country mid-summer in an erratic way instead of coming up with a multidisciplinary action plan. But as the economic situation worsened, “the question was what to prioritize—business or health?” he said. Between putting food on the table for their loved ones and the possibility of getting infected with COVID-19, more Lebanese seem to be taking their chances with the virus.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance correspondent for Voice of America and Al Jazeera English. She is also a TV commentator on the Middle East.  Twitter: @anchalvohra

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