BEIRUT — Two events mark our nights under curfew in Lebanon. First, a pick-up truck winds its way through the side streets of our predominantly Armenian neighborhood playing Christian hymns. Then most nights around 8 p.m., Lebanese go to their balconies to bang pots and pans, whistle and cheer to express thanks to the country’s beleaguered healthcare workers.
Just a few months ago, the nighttime banging of pots and pans represented a method of protest against the country’s political elite, which many Lebanese see as hopelessly corrupt. It was a way to show that, even during lulls in ongoing street demonstrations, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well. Now it has been repurposed as a way for Lebanese of all political persuasions to stay connected at a time the coronavirus is keeping everyone apart. People have taken to posting videos of these happy scenes on social media under the hashtag “Clap for the heroes.”
Over the past month, I have watched Beirut’s normally traffic-snarled streets empty and businesses shutter. The change has been gradual, as the country’s leaders have gone from urging people to voluntarily self-isolate to imposing a mandatory curfew that runs from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. The country’s airport, along with schools and universities, remain indefinitely closed.
My wife and I largely limit trips from our home to supermarkets and pharmacies, which remain open. Many shops allow only one customer at a time to enter, and employees wear medical gloves and large plastic shields over their faces. Not everyone in Lebanon is being so conscientious, however: Judging by the steady flow of traffic in some parts of Beirut, some people have already returned to work.
Even before the global pandemic struck, Lebanon was struggling with twin political and economic crises. As the economy foundered and the government implemented austerity measures last year, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest the venality of their political class. The unrest accelerated an economic deterioration that was already underway, leading to severe restrictions on citizens’ ability to access their bank accounts and causing the government to default on its debt last month for the first time ever.
If the Lebanese state’s infrastructure was already creaking, the virus threatens its collapse. The number of reported coronavirus cases is still relatively low, surpassing 500 this week. But the stringent measures the country’s leaders have now implemented reflect an acknowledgement that many cases may be going unreported due to insufficient testing, and that the country’s health system is incapable of providing care should the virus spread further. The prime minister himself said that “the state alone can’t cope with the spread of the pandemic,” while the head of the parliamentary health committee admitted that the entire county has perhaps only two dozen quarantine rooms.
Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri University Hospital, a sprawling concrete complex in the south of the city, has treated the bulk of the country’s coronavirus cases. The hospital suffers from limited capacity and chronic funding shortfalls. The medical staff even briefly declared a strike last month due to the failure to pay their salaries—even the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah weighed in, saying the workers should not only be paid their full wages but also given a bonus.
That incident represents only the tip of the iceberg: The financial crisis has made it impossible to import life-saving medical supplies, and resulted in the government’s chronic failure to pay its bills to public and private hospitals alike, a recent Human Rights Watch report described.
If the Lebanese state’s infrastructure was already creaking, the virus threatens its collapse.
At the same time, the country’s ruling political class has seized on the present moment to consolidate its position. Freed from the threat of mass protests, the government has taken steps that would have amounted to political suicide without the pandemic.
Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square used to be the center of the protest movement—for months, it was thronging with demonstrators, vendors and street performers. But late last month, riot police swooped down on the square and destroyed the remaining tents protesters had lived in during the months of protest. Now, the area looks like any other central thoroughfare, with a few cars and pedestrians passing through. Only a single piece of protest art—a raised fist with “Revolution” written on its wrist—serves as a reminder of days past.
The government also took the opportunity to approve the construction of the Bisri Dam, which has long been a flashpoint for criticism from protesters and activists. Located southeast of Beirut, the project is meant to increase the capital’s water supply. However, civil society activists have raised concerns about the environmental impact and expressed fears the country’s rulers will divert funds from the nearly $500 million budget to enrich themselves.
Beneath the surface, popular anger at the government is still simmering. There have been several small nighttime demonstrations in Beirut as residents violate the curfew and the admonitions urging social distancing to protest their deteriorating financial situation. The interior minister recently announced that Lebanon was in a “delicate stage,” and vowed “harsh measures” against those who break the curfew.
The precarious economic state of many Lebanese is the greatest threat to the country’s maintaining its social distancing policies. In the end, staying at home and pausing all economic activities is a luxury many can’t afford. The government has pledged roughly $150 per family to alleviate the economic pain—an amount far below the minimum wage, and which has not yet been delivered. Its social distancing measures have already cost most Lebanese far more, however: One taxi driver even set his vehicle on fire over a new prohibition on picking up more than one passenger at a time.
The country’s political and economic failings thus serve as the greatest obstacle to preventing the spread of the virus. During the nighttime banging of pots and pans, one of our neighbors regularly reminds me of that fact. Amid the cheers for the healthcare workers, he returns to the slogans of months past: “Revolution! Revolution!”
Photo credit: Aremenia Street in Beirut, February 3, 2020, by Leon Petrosyan, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Armenia_street_in_Beirut.jpg