For over four decades, Lebanon has struggled with severe economic issues. As the country’s difficulties continued to intensify over the years, the COVID-19 virus became too overwhelming for the Lebanese government to handle correctly.
The economic issues began after the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, which was prompted by years of disputes between the many religious sects. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Christian groups, backed by Syria and Israel, attempted to gain political control over Lebanon. Around 1990 when the civil war ended, the country began to suffer from more institutionalized government corruption that put Lebanon in crisis for decades.
Petty government corruption between religious sects is widespread in Lebanon, as bribes and illegal payments are often traded in order to obtain favorable judicial decisions. Social welfare and public services have been heavily impacted by the lack of structure within the system.
Lebanon’s debt piled up post-war, and with no means to repay it, they began a borrowing spree from other countries, mostly from the Gulf states. Between 2003 and 2015, an estimated 76 percent of foreign aid came from the Gulf states, which resulted in a major dependency. Their financial support, however, began slowly decreasing in 2016 due to many factors, such as a rise in political conflicts within the country.
Under those circumstances, Lebanon began facing one of its worst economic collapses. Unable to pay their debts, they became the third most indebted state in the world. By 2019, the country faced dollar shortages, which led to banks limiting withdrawals. As of 2021, the Lebanese pound has lost practically 90 percent of its value. Poverty rates have skyrocketed, and with no rescue plan regarding foreign aid, the country is left starving and alone.
Lebanese hospitals were heavily affected by the financial crisis in 2019, and the lack of funds has led to instances where they are unable to provide patients with life-saving surgery and urgent medical care. The health crisis increased as the Lebanese government failed to reimburse hospitals, both private and public, as well as other funds. This has led to unpaid staff and no means with which to purchase medical supplies.
During February of 2020, matters only worsened for Lebanon as they identified their first known case of the COVID-19 virus. With virtually no money and no well-established government to handle the pandemic, citizens panicked and worried for their future.
In August 2020, Lebanon suffered once again due to the Beirut explosion, and the devastation severely impacted the already failing economy. The explosion killed over 200 individuals and injured around 5,000. It also damaged approximately 292 health facilities, which indebted Lebanon even more.
On January 31, 2020, Lebanon established a National Committee for COVID-19, roughly two weeks after the virus had spread outside of China and reached other countries. This committee was created prior to any cases being known in Lebanon, meaning their initial reaction to the virus was very efficient and well-timed. Almost a month later, on February 21, Lebanon reported their first case of COVID-19.
As mentioned, hospitals had already been severely struggling prior to the pandemic. A factor that was worrisome for the country was their inability to manufacture their own medical supplies. Lebanon always relied on foreign aid to equip hospitals with the necessary supplies and had no medical manufacturer abilities. With a disorderly government and a declining economy, Lebanon lacked the means to employ more staff or purchase medical supplies and protective gear, such as masks.
On February 22, 2020, a day after their first case, the Lebanese government shut down public transit and banned all flights to countries that had high rates of the virus at the time. The country began quickly closing places such as schools, restaurants, nightclubs, and theatres. Another tactic to combat COVID-19 was to have most media outlets shift their focus to informing the public about the virus, such as having talk shows host physicians and public health experts. According to the Lebanese American University, these approaches led to 76 percent of the population abiding by the stay-at-home order. Additionally, 90 percent avoided crowds and 96 percent adhered to the constant hand-washing that was suggested by experts.
Their strategy for containing the virus at first was aggressive yet successful, particularly in comparison to other countries. Lebanon, however, had no choice but to manage the outbreak as harshly as possible, seeing as they lacked the technology and the supplies to handle a large number of cases.
While the strict lockdown aided in the management of cases at first, the economy suffered immensely, resulting in Lebanese citizens having no income for months on end. By the end of 2020, the Lebanese poverty rate was expected to increase from 30 percent to 45 percent. After extensive strict lockdowns, however, more than half of Lebanese citizens were found to be living in poverty. Citizens have begun expressing their concerns, stating, “Our government doesn’t bat an eyelid and abandons us penniless and starving.”
The country is now also facing serious food shortages. Food items have become so overpriced that not only can citizens not afford it, but even shops are unable to stock their shelves. Foods such as meat and fruits are now even considered a luxury. For some households, cold water and electricity are also difficult to obtain.
Grocery stores are closing due to lack of supplies, and banks are still limiting withdrawals to the public. Very few gas stations have remained open, resulting in individuals hoarding fuel as prices continue to spike and will eventually be too high to afford.
Protesting the Conditions
Lebanon has held many anti-government protests since October 2019 as their economy has continuously declined, impacting citizens’ accessibility to healthcare and food. Protests continued as the mismanagement of COVID-19 has resulted in extreme poverty rates.
Hundreds of Lebanese in Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli protested these conditions in January 2021. Some protesters expressed that they’re no longer scared of the virus and that dying of COVID-19 is easier than having their families starve to death. Outraged by how the government has stolen from citizens and left them famished, protesters demanded financial compensation.
The protest in Tripoli became a riot – violent conflict between security forces and demonstrators. Force and tear gas was used in order to disperse the protesters, resulting in over 45 injured. To show support for Tripoli, a gathering in Beirut was held, where protesters chanted slogans that criticized the government’s decisions, which are believed to have worsened the economy.
Protests have continued and will keep occurring until citizens feel acknowledged and receive the financial support they so desperately need.
As of March 2021, around a year after their first known case, Lebanon has had almost half a million cases of the COVID-19 virus. The outbreak has led to over 6,000 deaths, with numbers rising rapidly on the daily. Currently, the majority of Lebanon’s population are living in poverty.
According to Assem Araji, the head of the health committee, Lebanon needs approximately 10 million vaccines, most of which are already secured. As of March 2021, 20 percent of the population are registered to be vaccinated and doses are slowly being distributed.
While vaccines are far from being enough to repair the damage, it will surely relieve the population. The Lebanese are hopeful that the vaccines will aid in reopening stores and slightly boost the economy. The damage is so severe and deep-rooted, however, that it will take decades of mending for the country’s economy to see any hint of substantial resolution.