The Coronavirus in Lebanon: A Crisis?

Joel D. Parker's essay on Lebanon discusses how the pandemic erupted against the background of a growing economic crisis. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

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Since mid-April 2020, the official numbers show that the new cases of novel coronavirus is in steady decline. Given the fact that Lebanon has a densely populated territory with over a million citizens living below the poverty line, 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and about 300,000 Palestin­ian refugees, Lebanese officials began to worry about a public health crisis from the end of Feb­ruary, and effectively shut down urban areas in mid-March. With just 25 deaths officially report­ed by early May, observers such as Liz Sly of the Washington Post have written that Lebanon ap­pears to have emerged with a much better situa­tion than anyone would have predicted. Others, such as Tony Badran at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argue that the official numbers are not to be trusted given divisions in the Leba­nese public healthcare system, the fact that the Minister of Health is Hezbollah-backed, and due to the sensitivity of the issue in a deeply unstable socio-political environment, where a “technocrat­ic” government was formed in January to replace the one that resigned following mass popular pro­tests last year. Either way, the public health threat has been a serious challenge, occurring just as the government emerged ostensibly to stabilize and reform the failing economic system.

The Ministry of Health announced around 750 cases and 25 deaths by early May. The first con­firmed case, which was announced on February 21, was of a woman who had traveled to Iran. However incoming flights from Iran (along with China, Italy, and South Korea) were not banned until March 11, three weeks later. The next day of­ficials closed all land crossings into Syria, while the government in Jordan closed its borders to travel with Lebanon and Syria on March 17. In mid-March, the government imposed a curfew from 19:00-05:00, and loosened that to 21:00-05:00 on April 24. However, a sudden spike of 36 new cases led to a reversal on May 10 back to the original curfew for the indefinite future.6 The in­ternational airport of Beirut was officially closed to non-citizens on March 19. From then until mid-April a repatriation effort took place, which returned 2,317 on commercial flights and 356 on private jets. This effort was suspended on April 10 until April 27 after a rash of new cases, following the return of students from universities in Europe and North America. Some 1,200 Lebanese citi­zens were repatriated from Iran, many of whom were studying at the Shiʿi seminaries (hawzas) in Qom, which was the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran. Hizballah’s health network took responsibility for testing this group; perhaps un­surprisingly, none of them were reported to have been infected.

The current government is dominated by the March 8th political alliance that includes Hizballah, Amal, and the President’s son-in-law Gibran Bas­sil’s party the Free Patriotic Union as well as in­dependent politicians, and the Minister of Health, Hamad Hassan from Baalbek, was picked by Hiz­ballah for the job. In addition, Hizballah runs its own hospitals and clinics located in its strong­holds of southern Lebanon, Baalbek and south Beirut. The organization even announced that it was testing its fighters going into Syria. Indeed, despite the low official numbers, Hizballah has made a very public demonstration that it is leav­ing no stone unturned in its effort to help locate and treat coronavirus victims, especially among the supporters of the party. It has reportedly mo­bilized thousands of party activists to visit towns throughout southern Lebanon and readied a re­ported 1,500 doctors and 3,000 nurses along with 100 ambulances to “wage war” on the virus.

Lebanese political activists appear more con­cerned with their social welfare than social dis­tancing. Many perceive the overall economic crisis and government corruption as the most urgent threats. The deep economic contraction in 2018-2019 (-1.9% and -6.9% respectively), is expected to deepen significantly in 2020 with a projected neg­ative growth of 9-14%. In March, the government announced that it would not be able to continue to pay its foreign debts, essentially forcing a re­structuring of Lebanon’s debt that is feared will trigger a significant reduction in foreign invest­ment for the short-to-medium term. However, the United States has committed to $13.3 million in aid for COVID-19 treatment and prevention, with $8 million slated to protect the refugee commu­nities through the UNHCR. Also on March 12, the World Bank approved a fast track aid package worth $40 million to help Lebanon face the threat of the virus and continue to focus on its general economic crisis.

Due to the economic crisis, it took several weeks for Lebanon to get testing up to speed, and it was only in mid-April that the government announced it was able to expand testing to around 1,500 peo­ple a day, including some randomized samples, which are needed to see if the country can move towards opening up key economic sectors. Oth­er reports suggest that only around 500 test a day were actually done though until mid-April, giving a rate of 2.5 tests per thousand. By mid-April, over 18,000 total tests had been done. Yet the positive cases only came back around 3.7 percent of the time, which is a much lower ratio of tests to pos­itive results than, for instance, those observed in most U.S. states. However, in the rural town of Bsharri, which has a population of 24,000, there were at least 600 tests done and 60 turned out positive. This amounted to nearly 10 percent of the total cases in Lebanon at the time. Local offi­cials in the Christian-majority resort town denied that Bsharri was an anomaly and suggested that if similar testing rates of 25 per thousand went on throughout the country the official numbers would be much higher than they are.

Despite the assumption that the picture paint­ed by the Hizballah-backed Ministry of Health is overly rosy, and that the coronavirus situation may be considerably worse, there have not been reports of overwhelmed Lebanese hospitals or leaked images that would imply a high death rate. Yet the stirrings of the October 2019 protest movement that appeared dormant have revived, as seen at the end of April with explosive riots in Tripoli carried out by demonstrators shouting that they were too hungry to worry about virus re­strictions. Large segments of the population are bracing for deeper economic pain in the coming months following the weakening of the Lebanese pound, a global recession, and an effective end to the tourism industry which accounted for 19 percent of the total GDP in 2016. It is likely that despair and unrest will overtake brief moments of near national unity that were experienced in March and April as healthcare workers were em­braced as heroes for working with little pay to save lives and prevent what could have been a catastrophe.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.