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Coronavirus vs. Dissent in Lebanon

Published 20 Jun 2020
Evangeline Larsen

Late last year, it felt as if there was a new protest, in a new street, in a new country every week. One of the countries to experience this bubbling over of frustrations was Lebanon. Lebanon’s complex and intensely divisive confessional government began to unravel on October 17 2019 as the population took to the streets to air their many grievances. Over the months to come, the predominantly peaceful protests called for the government to end the notorious levels of corruption, improve environmental policy, increase gender equality and end the financial crisis.

The World Bank was already predicting a “small recession in 2019” before the demonstrations broke out. By the end of 2019, the Lebanese Pound, usually set at a fixed exchange rate of 1507.5 to the US Dollar since 1997, could be found on the black market for up to 2000 pounds. With banks limiting withdrawals and unemployment rates rising, everyday families were struggling to get food on the table. For domestic workers and those in refugee camps, the situation was much worse.

Come January of this year, the protests were becoming more violent than the festival-like atmosphere of October and November. A new government had been formed with Hassan Diab now formally taking on the role of Prime Minister, maintaining the position being assigned to a Sunni Muslim. The Cabinet consisted of a few technocrats, a key request of the protestors, but appeared to still be controlled by the same corrupt elites. In fact, many argued that Hezbollah had gained an even deeper hold of the government.

As a consequence, demonstrations ramped up and security forces reacted with tear gas and water cannons. But there seemed to be nothing that would stop the protestors, until, coronavirus hit the country.

Lebanon reported its first case of coronavirus on February 21, a woman returning from the COVID-19 hotspot Iran. But flights from Iran were not banned for another week, something many saw as a further indication of Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanese affair. On March 15 the country entered a government-declared total lockdown. Fears were high, the Mediterranean country was ill-prepared to deal with a health crisis of this magnitude. With only 128 hospital beds and seven ICUs nation-wide, many densely populated areas and political unrest Samer Saab from the Lebanese American University predicted 13 217 infections and 454 deaths in a best-case scenario.

However, the drastic steps taken by Diab’s cabinet seems to have paid dividends. As of this week, there have only been 24 deaths and 710 cases – far fewer than countries with similar populations and superior healthcare systems such as Norway. How was this possible?

Firstly, the lockdown has been strictly observed and hotspot areas such as the small town of Bcharre have been under complete quarantine. Additionally, distrust of the government may have in fact helped to keep the Lebanese indoors, out of fear the crisis would be mishandled. Other factors are evidently at play, such as the small and relatively young population, many likely unreported cases, and the option for mild cases to be quarantined in the hospital. Furthermore, on March 12 the World Bank allocated US$40 million to bolster the Ministry of Public Health in its efforts.

Whilst the healthcare crisis has seemingly been contained, the political ramifications of the coronavirus are only just beginning. Sectarian issues are never far from the Lebanese political sphere and as the first case of COVID-19 was of a Shia woman returning from Iran, many heads quickly turned to blame Hezbollah. Following this, Hezbollah acted swiftly to display its organisational might by disinfecting Beirut’s southern suburbs and lending their services to assist the health ministry. However, it has in fact been predominantly Christian areas of the country that have seen the highest infection rates. Some protestors have expressed concerns that Hezbollah is once again taking advantage of an emergency to solidify their hold on the government.

However, the effective containment of the virus has done little to allay the population’s concerns over the burgeoning financial crisis. As the Lebanese Parliament reconvened on 21 April, complete with masks and socially distanced in a large theatre, protestors drove around in convoys of cars broadcasting their anger. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has urged for an intensive aid programme to be implemented before millions of Lebanese go hungry, although many already are. In fact, at least half of the country’s six-million people are living below the poverty line.

The cards are stacked against the Lebanese people: entrenched inequality, a government of war elites, the world’s third-highest debt to gross domestic product ratio and a global pandemic. Nevertheless, Covid-19 has not discouraged dissent in Lebanon and the country’s future remains as uncertain as ever.

Evangeline Larsen is undertaking her final semester of a dual degree between Sciences Po university in France and the University of Sydney majoring in Middle Eastern and North African studies, French and International Relations. Last year Evangeline participated in the APRU (Asia Pacific Rim Universities) Undergraduate Leadership Program in Oregon, USA for two weeks which focused on the nexus of public health, environment and social inequality on a global scale. She is particularly interested in Lebanese politics and the complexities of the recent global anti-neoliberal protest movements.

Evangeline is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.