The pandemic brings Lebanon’s challenges to a boiling point

    Six months after popular protests erupted across Lebanon, the Covid-19 pandemic is making a meal out of an already fragile situation.

    Six months ago, Lebanon witnessed a popular protest movement sweep across the country in response to a litany of long-term issues facing the country, most immediate of which was the country’s growing economic crisis. While the largely cross-sectarian movement brought with it a wave of hope for positive change, as the economic situation continued to deteriorate, there has was a persistent sense of impending doom.

    Enter coronavirus. On February 21, Lebanon confirmed its first case of Covid-19 when a 45-year-old woman returning from Qom – at that time the epicentre of the nascent pandemic in the Middle East – tested positive. Numerous other confirmed cases followed this in people arriving mainly from Iran.

    Like almost everything else in the country, this looming public health crisis was heavily politicised. As the government moved to ban the entry of non-Lebanese passengers from several virus-hit states including Iran, China, South Korea and Italy, political and sectarian rhetoric ramped up.

    Critics of Hezbollah accused it of being behind a nearly three-week delay in banning flights from Iran following the discovery of Covid-19 positive passengers. Speaking to the situation, former Cabinet Minister and prominent critic of the group, May Chidiac, who later tested positive for the virus after returning from Paris, tweeted “until when are we going to be the victims of Hezbollah’s bullying?…This is new proof they control the fate of the nation.”

    As of April 27, Lebanon reported 707 confirmed cases with 234 deaths. Measures taken by the government appear to have begun ‘flattening the curve’, however, as is the case with many countries, the number of confirmed cases is likely only a fraction of the real picture as testing and contact-tracing capacity in the country remains limited.

    Government response

    From the outside, the government response appears to have been swift and mostly effective. While there are measures for which the government deserves credit – such as the recent announcement by Prime Minister Hassan Diab allocating $400 million at market rates in aid for daily workers, agricultural workers, small industries and others to help deal with the impacts of economic crisis exacerbated by anti-Coronavirus measures – the pandemic has laid bare the country’s systemic failings.

    Writing for the Century Foundation on the impact of what he termed the ‘neoliberal experiment on Lebanon’s public sector’, Beirut-based journalist Kareem Chehayeb argued that “Lebanon has, for decades been one of the world’s leading experiments in extreme libertarianism illustrating what happens to a society with little or no government regulation or societal protection.”

    The lack of a coherent state infrastructure has led to a patchwork approach to the pandemic and has put enormous pressure on the limited resources of a public healthcare system overshadowed by for-profit institutions that are out of reach for many, if not most, Lebanese.

    Furthermore, the crisis has provided room for the re-sectarianisation of public spaces as traditional political parties move to reiterate their relevance to their respective communities. The political elite in the country – known collectively as the Zu’ama – have not only organised pandemic related campaigns, including testing drives, they have also donated significant amounts of money to support hospitals in their respective constituencies.

    Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, for example, have donated thousands of dollars to support facilities in key constituencies in northern Lebanon.

    Furthermore, parties like Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement have launched their own anti-coronavirus efforts, including the deployment of medical professionals, in the absence of the ability of the state to launch a coherent response. From the government’s side, this may be more of an issue of capacity than of will.

    All of this represents a setback for the protest movement that had already been struggling with efforts from traditional political parties to weaponise sectarianism as a means of de-legitimisation.

    Describing the current situation as a ‘Perfect Storm’, Political Scientist and Senior Fellow at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies writes: “Ultimately, we are reaping what 30 years of postwar ‘zombie power-sharing’ and its clientelist infrastructures have sown: A state stripped of the bare minimum of credibility, service delivery, and institutional capabilities. You see this in the way some diehards have weaponised the Covid-19 public health crisis along narrow sectarian, confessional, and regional lines. It also shows in the neglect of public health facilities and their limited resources in comparison to the clientelistic capabilities of sectarian parties.”

    Until recently, it was believed that the continued spread of Covid-19 in Lebanon would effectively negate the resumption of mass protests given the legitimate concern of exacerbating its spread. However, recent developments say otherwise.

    A widely-circulated video on social media of a recent protest captured an incident which sums up the current situation. In the video, a protester is heard telling a security officer “I’m hungry!”, to which the officer responds “I’m more hungry!”

    The potential for larger-scale unrest is a real possibility as the already challenging impact of the economic and financial crisis is made worse by Covid-19 mitigation efforts. As poverty in the country continues to rise at an alarming rate, mass-unrest in regions hard hit by poverty becomes a real possibility.

    More recently, hundreds of protesters gathered outside of the Central Bank in Beirut’s Hamra district calling for the head of the institution, Riad Salameh, to resign amidst a rapidly devaluating currency.

    The pandemic has highlighted the desperate need for increased spending on, and effective implementation of social safety nets, including healthcare. Even with a coherent plan, this will require an allocation of tens-of-billions of dollars that could only be sustained if accompanied by significant economic and political reform focused on building equity in the country – something that is not guaranteed given the current circumstances.

    The recent call by the head of Lebanon’s Banking Association to privatise state assets as a solution to the government’s financial crisis is demonstrative of how tone-deaf and out of touch with reality Lebanon’s elites remain. An apparent shift in thinking that seems to be slowly taking place across the world regarding the logic of austerity and the role of the state in managing social impacts resulting from economic collapse provides some hope that such an approach could be avoided.

    In Lebanon’s case, however, any positive developments in this arena will depend mainly on the terms connected to any economic rescue package dictated by the International Monetary Fund, an option the country arguably no longer has the luxury of circumventing.

    International developments

    Events with seemingly no direct connection to Lebanon’s woes will also play a role in the months and years to come. With the price of oil now in the negative, the implications for the regional political economy – which would have a direct impact on Lebanon – are significant.

    With Gulf economies, particularly Saudi Arabia, facing the prospect of sustained budgetary deficits, a crucial source of potential cash – both in the form of remittances and direct investment – may be increasingly inaccessible.

    Furthermore, as Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and Bahrainis, let alone Europeans, feel the economic crunch of the post-pandemic recession to come, hopes of leveraging Lebanon’s long-neglected tourism sector as a critical element of economic revival are quickly fading.

    As the severity of the global economic impact of the pandemic becomes more and more apparent, the country’s financial woes are set to worsen. With a rapidly devaluating currency and a grim economic outlook, the threat posed by Covid-19 is becoming the lesser of two evils in the eyes of many Lebanese.

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