BEIRUT — The specter of poverty is haunting the majority of the Lebanese — be they poor or wealthy — as they struggle to buy food and basic necessities amid worsening living conditions resulting from a complete lockdown and night curfew that started Jan. 7 and is scheduled to remain in place until Feb. 1, albeit with some exceptions.
On Jan. 11, the Supreme Defense Council declared a state of public emergency and imposed a round-the-clock curfew between Jan. 14 and Jan. 25. The lockdown was again extended Jan. 21 until Feb. 8, as the number of new coronavirus cases exceed 6,000 a day with more than 70 deaths in a 24-hour period.
Hospital wards dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients are currently full, and the intensive care units are operating at full capacity.
The lockdown should relieve the burden on health-care workers as the number of patients in hospitals decreases. The spike in the number of cases is the result of the reopening of nightclubs during the end of year holidays.
This state of emergency required the closure of all establishments, shops and foodstuff stores, which are only open for delivery. This left many workers jobless amid worsening living conditions resulting from the economic crisis that has been plaguing the country since the end of 2019.
The crisis led to an increase in commodity prices and a collapse of the Lebanese currency, amid the state’s subsidizing of basic commodities such as wheat, fuel and medicines. To add insult to injury, a major explosion ripped through Beirut port on Aug. 4, 2020, killing nearly 200 people and destroying the neighborhoods surrounding the port. This made the poor poorer and increased the poverty rate in Lebanon.
The extension of the lockdown has had a negative impact on many Lebanese who do not have a steady income, who have no savings and who need to work every day to make ends meet. This is not only limited to the poor, as there are wealthy people who lost their money due to the economic crisis that the country is going through. Some businesses were forced to close down, some are operating at minimum capacity and people are unable to withdraw their money due to restrictions imposed by banks since the end of 2019. The aid that people are managing to obtain — if any — is limited to food.
Abu Alaa, a kaak (hardened bread covered in sesame seeds) seller and father of six from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “There are some civil society associations that brought me rice, noodles, lentils, beans, and so on. But how am I to buy gas so we can cook? How am I to buy bread? How am I to afford a doctor’s bill? How am I to cover my children’s increasing expenses? It is quite impossible. The cherry on top is that the lockdown has been extended, and we do not know when it will end. We are afraid of the unknown.”
Like Abu Alaa, there are many poor people in Tripoli who are finding themselves simply unable to afford the basic necessities. The coronavirus crisis and the negative repercussions of the economic crisis have had a great impact in this regard.
Ibrahim Haidar, a young civil society activist from Tripoli, told Al-Monitor, “The current lockdown is a crime against the majority of the Lebanese people. The poor — especially day laborers such as blacksmiths, carpenters and mechanics are the most affected.”
Haidar said, “Friends and I collect money to help the poor in the region. We assess what people need, such as diapers, milk, gas, clothes or medicines, while most of them need heaters to fight the cold. What breaks our hearts is that there are people who are eating plain sandwiches.”
He added, “People are afraid a state of lawlessness might ensue due to the increasing poverty and the ongoing lockdown.”
Since Jan. 25, the youth in Tripoli has taken to the streets to protest the lockdown without any alternative or financial support provided by the authorities. Thousands of families in the impoverished city have been living under extreme poverty for the past year. Violent clashes have erupted in the past few days between the angry protesters and the security forces who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds. Hundreds of people were injured and a protester died from his wounds Jan. 28. The protests in Tripoli extended to other areas across Lebanon, including in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and the south, to support the protesters in the northern city.
Thursday evening, on the fourth night of unrest in Tripoli, flames engulfed the municipality building which caught fire just before midnight and emitted plumes of grey smoke. The fire spread to other official buildings — including the Sunni Sharia court — in one of Lebanon's poorest cities.
Later on Thursday a second protester died from wounds sustained during the crackdown.
In southern Lebanon, things are slightly different compared to the north. In the south, the Shiite duo — Hezbollah and Amal movements — are working to secure food for poor families. Diesel fuel was distributed for heating along with some money and medicines. This applies to some villages in the Bekaa Valley, the southern suburbs of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
However, there are still many families that are not affiliated with any parties and are not receiving any assistance. Some of them are grappling with a tragic situation.
Khadija Daoud, a mother of two from Kafra in southern Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “I received food aid from influential parties and well-known families in the village. I also got 400,000 Lebanese pounds [about $264 at the official exchange rate of 1,515 pounds to the dollar, or about $45 in the black market rate] twice from the Lebanese army for every child I have in public school. Things are going fine, but the question is until when will we be able to survive this situation? I am not working. My husband is a plumber and is not working right now. We had some money saved, and we are now spending it on medicines and basic necessities for the children.”
Ali, who preferred not to mention his family name or the ministry he works at, told Al-Monitor, “I earn a monthly salary but given the skyrocketing prices I can barely cover my family’s expenses. How am I to survive on a salary that has lost its purchasing value? Danger is lurking everywhere.”
On Aug. 4, Beirut witnessed an explosion that demolished a large part of its homes. Beirut Gov. Judge Marwan Abboud told Al-Monitor, “Beirut is currently facing two crises. While some are dealing with the coronavirus only, others have the [repercussions of the] port explosion to handle as well.”
He said, “The people affected by the explosion received international aid as well as assistance from international and local organizations. Also, the army allocated 100 billion Lebanese pounds [$66 million at the official exchange rate, or about $11 million on the black market] to those affected, and an additional 50 billion Lebanese pounds [$33 million or about $5.7 million on the black market] are to be soon distributed. But this aid is not enough for restoration, let alone to ward off the coronavirus crisis. We — as a municipality — have allocated 50 billion Lebanese pounds to those affected, but the disbursement process is still facing legal obstacles, as the municipality is not entitled to disburse funds to any private or public agency.”
Abboud added, “With regard to the coronavirus, we are working on implementing a new plan. We have purchased and distributed 200 respirators to those in need. People will also be exempt from paying their taxes and fees — the value of which is between 70 and 100 billion Lebanese pounds [at the official rate: between $46.2 million and $66 million or between $8 million and $11.5 million]. However, most of these initiatives are hindered by the bureaucratic red tape. To be able to overcome this crisis, we need an international rescue plan."
The World Bank, to help the country fight poverty, announced Jan. 12 emergency aid to Lebanon amounting to $246 million in the form of financial transfers and social services to about 786,000 Lebanese living in poverty and suffering from the economic and health crises plaguing the country.