Through The Lens Of Crisis: COVID-19 And The People On The Frontlines Of Conflict
Lebanon: Explosion Exacerbates Political and Economic Crises, as COVID-19 Looms
August 10, 2020
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On August 4, a series of explosions, resulting in a dramatic blast, rocked Beirut’s seafront, resulting in at least 200 deaths and thousands of injuries, with many still unaccounted for. The cause of the blast was ammonium nitrate, which was stored haphazardly close to Beirut’s port for over six years. The Prime Minister’s resignation August 10, following major protests, a surge in COVID-19 infections, and ongoing economic and political turmoil, has left the country on edge.
The blast left hospitals, which were already overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, overflowing and in dire need of support. Early accounts indicate that the explosions destroyed wheat supplies, shops, and businesses. More than 300,000 homes were also demolished, leaving an untold number of people homeless and in need of immediate assistance. At least four hospitals were so damaged by the explosions that they were unable to admit patients who needed life-saving treatment. Along with the loss of human life, the explosions have increased the desperate need for international humanitarian relief amid spiraling food prices and rising unemployment, further complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past month, The Soufan Center’s reporting team, using Truepic’s image verification platform, had been conducting interviews and research with doctors, local journalists, and individuals affected by the overlapping crises of COVID-19 and Lebanon’s political and economic struggles. The interviews focused on marginalized communities in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, and in Beirut.
The Lebanese journalist working with the reporting team on this story – who has asked not to be identified for security reasons – was in Beirut during the explosions but not harmed.
Dramatic Political and Economic Turmoil
Anti-government protests in Lebanon began in October 2019 and led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The combination of a 60-70 percent increase in the price of staple food products and an 80 percent devaluation of the Lebanese pound over the past year is expected to have a huge negative impact on the population, 60 percent of which is expected to drop below the poverty line in the coming year.
After a lull over several months in protests, primarily due to a COVID-induced lockdown, protests against the Lebanese government reached a low in the first half of 2020, but have since picked back up again in recent weeks – focusing on corruption and poor governance. The Lebanese pound has dropped in value by 80 percent since the demonstrations began, and 60 percent in the past month alone. The reporting team’s interviews – which were conducted with refugees, doctors, and across various religious and sectarian denominations within Lebanon – all reported increasing food insecurity and the essential collapse of the middle class. Such disturbing developments – which have been the norm in Lebanon for some time – are likely to widen the gap between rich and poor, and will drastically increase Lebanon’s humanitarian needs.
COVID-19 Cases Rise, Fear Spreads
In late July, 3,532 new COVID cases had been reported in Lebanon, but in just a few days, cases have spiked to 6,517 as of August 9, and cases continue to rise. During the mass protests in Beirut, relatively few demonstrators wore masks, which likely contributed to the spread. Additionally, reported COVID-19 cases in refugee camps indicate that the disease is spreading in communities with little access to testing facilities or proper healthcare. After initially downplaying the risks, the Lebanese government has implemented several lockdowns as COVID-19 infections spike; Lebanon’s cabinet recently approved an extension of the current lockdown to August 30th given the increasing spread of the virus.
The Soufan Center’s reporting team spoke with Ibrahim, a Syrian man in his 20s living in Lebanon, in early July. Ibrahim indicated COVID-19 was a lesser risk than starvation so that he had to break stay-at-home advice to work. “I can’t stay home. I won’t survive” he said, highlighting the difficulties facing those not earning enough money to support themselves amid spiraling inflation.
Ibrahim fled from the Syrian conflict and planned to finish his master’s degree in history in Beirut through a scholarship, but could not continue to pay for other expenses given Lebanon’s financial crisis. While he worked as a delivery person to make ends meet, his company later furloughed all employees who were not Lebanese. His long-term plan is to apply for asylum in Canada because of the dire economic situation.
At the end of July, the reporting team spoke again with Ibrahim about the impact of COVID-19. “People are scared now,” he said. He indicated that COVID-19 had become widespread in his community.
Vulnerable, Forgotten, and At Risk
With the economy already tanking and inflation rising, the unemployed, refugees, disabled and elderly lack income to pay for staple foods. One female activist in Beirut – who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons – told us that for Lebanon “COVID-19 was the final blow” and that “while we were [already] headed to this [negative] outcome, COVID-19 was the accelerating push.”
In the Bekaa Valley, refugees were so desperate that they dug a tunnel across the border into Syria, which is in its tenth year of war. The tunnels, which start from Zbidani in the Bekaa Valley, provide a more affordable way to shop for essential food items given the inflation in Lebanon, before returning home.
Sophia, a Syrian refugee whose husband died during the conflict in Syria (her name was changed to protect her identity), fled with her two children to Lebanon. But amid the onset of the financial crisis, she lost her job as a teacher and told us she “has been unable to pay her rent for five months.” The sense of urgency and despair across refugee and displaced person camps was palpable. Sophia described that some refugees were contemplating suicide because of the situation in the camps, which is not surprising given recent suicides among males in Lebanon.
When the reporting team first spoke to Sophia in early July, COVID-19 was far less of a priority. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had provided masks and soap, but she said “neither her or her children wore masks, for them the COVID-19 crisis seemed far less serious than their other concerns. She said defiantly that “we survived Syria, so will survive COVID-19.”
The reporting team interviewed Dr. Firas in early July, a Syrian doctor providing medical support to several refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, housing primarily a Syrian population. He directs a mobile health clinic supported by local NGOs. Before the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, Dr. Firas highlighted that health authorities were prioritizing the Lebanese for COVID-19 tests, making it more difficult for Syrian refugees to be tested. He also noted that some refugees worried to report to the authorities if they had COVID-19 symptoms for “fear they might be sent back to Syria.”
A Political, Security, Health, and Humanitarian Crisis, Compounded
The country’s humanitarian needs are directly tied to the political crisis. With the government unable to function, the Lebanese people have lost confidence in the political system. According to one of the activists interviewed, “Hezbollah has capitalized on this and took control of everything [political].” The ramifications of Hezbollah’s current political power has implications in terms of the country’s ability to secure economic loans from international institutions – and has led to increased tensions with Israel and other neighbors.
Last Tuesday’s blast in Beirut shocked the world. But even before that, hospitals faced shortages of equipment and funding, according to our interviews. There were too few ventilators for those who had COVID-19 – reports indicated there were only 300 in late spring — and frequent power outages, making it impossible to operate the ventilators.
For Dr. Firas, this has meant that he has moved his mobile clinic from the Bekaa Valley to support the needs of those injured and displaced from last Tuesday’s explosion.
Lebanon’s current political, economic and security crisis has increased tensions across the country. There is a desperate need for political, security and humanitarian support. President Macron of France visited the country on Thursday, August 6, and offered French support and aid, but growing grievances around corruption and government ineptitude have been exacerbated by the explosion. Lebanon needs help, and needs help now. The blast, though devastating, has focused the world’s attention on Lebanon and will hopefully initiate a groundswell of support, as well as the resources and expertise to begin holding the government accountable and conducting long-needed reforms in governance, economics, and politics.
Reporting from Lebanon by S.K., Writing by James Blake
Interview: Syrian Doctor And Volunteer Respond To Covid-19 And Blast In Lebanon
News Anchor and Journalist, Reena Ninan joined TSC to raise awareness around the plight of Lebanese and refugees in Lebanon as the country confronts several crises. She recently spoke with Dr. Firas, a Syrian refugee doctor in Lebanon, and Asma Patel, a medical volunteer.