The spread of coronavirus is the latest crisis to hit Lebanon, already facing ongoing anti-government protests since October 2019 and finding itself in the grips of the worst economic crunch since its 1975-1990 civil war.
In fact, on top of the Covid-19 outbreak, now approaching 500 confirmed cases, Lebanon is in dire economic situation. It was already in a deep economic crisis when mass protests erupted in October last year, prompting the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad al-HARIRI. Furthermore, banks have imposed increasingly strict limits on withdrawals from ATMs and blocked transfers abroad.
As Lebanon faces a harsh financial crisis crippling the state’s ability to face new crises, it has become obvious that the Lebanese people are growing increasingly anxious about the novel coronavirus, which transformed into a global pandemic.
The first case of the coronavirus was registered in Lebanon on the 21st of February. Twenty days later, the government decided to ban flights to and from Italy, South Korea, Iran, and China. Also, it decided to give Lebanese citizens seeking to return to Lebanon four days to do so before it bans all travel to and from countries that have witnessed significant outbreaks of the coronavirus such as France, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the United Kingdom, and Spain.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab called on public administrations and municipalities to split employee shifts, as official departments remained closed for three days for disinfection purposes. As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East are clamping down on restricting social activities, implying the region’s cherished traditions: the gatherings, big weddings, and massive celebrations. It translates into no more evenings spent in traditional coffee shops across the region and smoking of the beloved shisha in public places. Beirut is a stranger to these transformations as some of the restaurants have never closed one day during its raging war (1975-1990).
The Lebanese government has imposed a lockdown and overnight curfew until April 12 amid the crisis generated by the spread of the novel coronavirus. With a surging rate of business closures, work restrictions, and job losses, there are constant calls for rent and utility payment exemptions. Prices have shot up in recent months, but the banks have maintained the old exchange rate. Those with dollar accounts are frustrated at their inability to take out most of their cash to exchange it at a better rate from unofficial money changers.
Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport is closed to flights as part of strict containment measures designed to limit transmission of Covid-19. All dollar withdrawals are to be halted until the Beirut airport is re-opened.
Austerity measures have made Lebanon slash its government spending, weakening its healthcare sector, which faced an additional seven percent in budget cuts. In addition, US dollar shortages and the government’s failure to reimburse medical facilities have caused a worrying shortage in life-saving medicines and crucial equipment. One of the most indebted countries in the world, the Lebanese government announced that it could no longer pay its foreign debts for the first time earlier this March. At the same time, Lebanon is trying to cut public spending to unlock around $11.1 billion in loans the international community conditionally pledged almost two years ago.
Lebanon heavily relies on private sector and non-governmental organizations alternatives, as well as patronage networks from political parties, to counter the state’s shortcomings in providing services.
One positive aspect, however, in this ongoing crisis is that the Lebanese population is relatively young compared with other countries that have witnessed significant outbreaks of the virus; the virus has been taking a devastating toll on the category of older people, while mostly sparing the youth. In this context, we note that is it estimated that 40% of the Lebanese population is below 35 years old. In addition, the containment measures seem to be working in flattening the epidemic’s curve, being a ray of hope in a looming general socio-economic crisis in Lebanon.