Carla B. Abdo-Katsipis, Wesleyan University
The spread of COVID-19 and its consequences are unprecedented. As of April 5th, the virus has taken over 64,500 lives worldwide—an amount which will increase significantly before the pandemic dies down, as the disease has no known vaccine. Global economic shock reverberated as an increasing number of countries implemented “shut-down” policies—closing all but essential businesses, and mandating that citizens stay at home. COVID-19 is not only a disease; it is a test of state capacity. In Lebanon, the COVID-19 crisis response occurred within the contours of a country already mired in its worst economic crisis since its civil war from 1975-1991. Currently, the state implements preventive measures against COVID-19, largely using punitive tactics as a form of enforcement. However, the majority of crisis support comes from private citizens.
COVID-19 in Lebanon
On February 21, 2020, Lebanon confirmed its first coronavirus patient: a 45-year-old woman returning from Iran. She and two other passengers were brought immediately to Rafik el-Hariri University Hospital upon arrival to the airport, and the other 150 voyagers were asked to self-quarantine for the next 14 days. Seven days later, the Ministry of Education shut down all nurseries and K-12 schools, originally setting the date of return to March 8th. However, the coronavirus pandemic continued to expand, and by March 15, 2020, Lebanon declared a public state of emergency. The order mandated closure of universities, sports clubs, cafes, and other public locations, and a stay-at-home order for non-essential movement was issued. 11 days later, Lebanon imposed a curfew, whereby citizens must remain at home between the hours of 7:00 pm and 5:00 am. Measures of enforcement include an increase in street checkpoints, army patrols in the streets, and fines imposed on violators. These enforcements have significantly decreased public circulation.
The government established the public Rafic El-Hariri University Hospital and the private Hotel Dieu hospital as locations for hospitalizing COVID-19 patients. The state also created a special account for the purposes of citizen donation. On March 26, 2020, the government pledged to distribute an aggregate of $5 million in direct payments to families in need, and pledged $600 million towards medical supplies. Two days later, the Ministry of Health rented the Lebanese-Canadian hospital in order to use it as a treatment center for COVID-19 patients exclusively for a minimum of one year.
As of April 5, Lebanon has 527 cases of COVID-19, and 18 deaths. The degree to which the rate of infection has been mitigated by these measures is unclear, as the actual numbers of cases of COVID-19 are likely higher than the number of confirmed cases. While testing is free at the public hospital, it costs $100 at private clinics, and people are only tested if they display symptoms. Asymptomatic patients are not tested, and the cost of the test discourages many from taking it.
The governmental measures enforce social distancing and expand medical treatment centers; many describe them as effective against COVID-19. Others who rely on daily income feel that their survival is threatened. Indeed, a video surfaced of a street vendor throwing his vegetables on to the street, and screaming that he will not be able to feed his children when the Internal Security Forces threatened him with a fine for being outdoors. The measures that limit the spread of COVID-19 are also the final nail in Lebanon’s economic coffin, as businesses were already struggling in the midst of an economic crisis. Lebanon relies heavily on remittances from expatriates, and acute political instability reduced confidence in the country’s banking sector. The flow of remittances slowed, and businesses across the country either closed or downsized. 33% of Lebanese lived under the poverty line in September 2019—as of April 2020, nearly 50% do.
The October Revolution
The virus response took place in the context of months of widespread popular protests against the political and governance failures of the Lebanese system. Prompted by protests against prospective taxes on gas, tobacco, and VoIP calls on WhatsApp to counter a looming economic crisis, what started as a small group of dissidents snowballed into a country-wide movement. It called for an end to sectarianism, economic mismanagement, unemployment, corruption, lack of public accountability, and failure to provide basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation. Unlike prior protests, this movement was not motivated by partisanship, and called for the removal of all political leaders with the phrase “kilon ya3neh kilon”—”all of them means all of them.” The movement called for a resignation of all incumbent political leaders, and the creation of government led by independent experts, meant to guide the country out of crisis.
There were limits to its political effectiveness, though. The movement was leaderless, and other than voicing the desire to have independent experts in government, had no concrete agenda. They also became associated with several unpopular effects. Protesters blocked major roads throughout the country, severely limiting citizen mobility—and by extension, significantly reducing economic activity. When asked as to when protesters would clear the streets, the response was that they would cease dissent upon the establishment of an “independent government”.
On the premise that such political instability would result in residents withdrawing their dollars from local banks and deposit their money outside the country, banks unofficially (and illegally) imposed a system of capital controls on withdrawals. The banks originally limited dollar withdrawals to no more than $1000 weekly, and restricted dollar transfers outside of the country. By January 2020, these unpopular measures were approved by government, and the withdrawal restrictions tightened further. While the capital controls are based on a sliding scale of the size of the account, some are even as low as $100 a week. The Lebanese Lira lost 40% of its value against the dollar, with severe consequences for the majority of Lebanese who held their assets in the local currency, and economic deterioration became more acute.
This was the political and economic context within which Lebanon confirmed its first case of COVID-19, and the protective measures were implemented. The mandatory stay-at-home orders shut down the protests and required business owners to close their businesses completely. Combined with the capital controls, economic activity was brought to a near-complete halt.
Citizens have responded to this pandemic by providing crisis support. MTV host Marcel Ghanem facilitated a fundraising campaign to offset the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment. NGOs such as Matbakh El-Balad, Lebanese Food Bank, Boutata, Foodblessed, 3ajineh, The Donation Booth, KilnaYa3niKilna, Beit El-Baraka, Ajialouna, Lebanese Under Cover, Survivors, and Leap4love collected and delivered food for the needy. Other NGOs addressing medical needs are By Your Side, Lebanon Needs, Restart Center, SIDC Lebanon, The Vibe Wellness Circle, Bedayati, and Embrace.
Another citizen initiative titled “Baytna Baytak” finds free locations for medical staff and Red Cross members to reside; it allows them to focus on their jobs without having to worry about exposing their families to the COVID-19 virus. Defining them as “front line heroes”, Baytna Baytak has housed 165 medical personnel thus far. Housing is provided by citizens who have real estate available, and hotels such as Edde Sands.
What must be emphasized is that these initiatives were developed under harsh austerity measures. This being said, there are other citizens who respond with fatalism, indicating that all will die anyway, and thus, are not taking precautions. Prices for goods such as hygienic wipes have skyrocketed, and government has not stopped the price-gouging. 
Lebanon is unique in that the mechanisms needed to combat COVID-19 are informally distributed between state and citizenry. In the fight against COVID-19, the state’s capacity is limited to i) enforcing the stay-at-home order and ii) increasing resources available for treatment. Citizens are providing crisis support resources, such as food, shelter, and most financial assistance. In most governmental systems, the state is responsible for providing both. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of Lebanon’s shared capacity model; without universal testing, the true rates of infection are markedly higher than confirmed cases, and as such, any attempt at evaluating success would yield inaccurate results.
Lebanon faces the prospect of emerging from multiple crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic depression, and political turmoil. Indicated by the rapid increase in poverty, the emergency measures against COVID-19 are amplifying the preexisting catastrophes. Lebanon plans to restructure its debt, but evidence of reform must be made clear in order to unlock over 11 billion dollars in pledged aid. Without political change, a financial stimulus, and a plan to emerge from its economic crisis, Lebanon’s state capacity will further deteriorate, and the country will be unable to surpass these calamities.
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