Yesterday, Lebanon began an 11-day, 24-hour nationwide lockdown — implementing its most stringent restrictions yet — to curb an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases that has overwhelmed the country’s already fragile health sector.
For the first time since the virus was detected nearly one year ago, residents are required to stay at home for the entirety of the lockdown period, set to end on 25 January.
People were notified only on the evening before total lockdown began that they would be required to apply for an hourlong permit to leave their homes for emergencies, limited to trips to pharmacies, medical clinics or bakeries. This news was met with widespread confusion Thursday morning, as the form was not immediately made available to residents.
The normally congested streets and highways were quiet as nonessential businesses, restaurants, cafes and bars across the country shut their doors to customers. Grocery stores and food and beverage businesses were permitted to remain open only for delivery, in response to the three days of panic buying that followed the abrupt lockdown announcement on 11 January.
However, the strict new measures did not deter some from breaking lockdown rules this time around either. Many people were seen leisurely walking through various Beirut neighborhoods. Some minimarkets, with blinds closed, discreetly sold food to customers.
Previous lockdowns have disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable residents in the country, which is currently grappling with the worst economic crisis in decades.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees closed its health centers until 18 January, and refugees are unable to leave their crowded camps due to the lockdown. Palestinian groups in the southern city of Saida condemned the U.N. agency’s move as “irresponsible” and “unjustified,” and called on the agency to reopen its clinics immediately, according to the state-run National News Agency.
The country’s state of emergency comes after a week of record-breaking daily infection rates, the result of holiday season transmissions, which have pushed coronavirus intensive care units to the brink of capacity. Most restrictive measures were canceled during the holiday season and people flocked to parties, restaurants and clubs.
The rise in infections pushed hospitals to the brink, with many having to turn patients away or treat them in their cars in the hospitals’ outdoor parking areas. With an economic crisis biting hard, shortages of key medicines and oxygen canisters were reported across the country.
The government has been widely criticized for implementing conflicting policies in the lead-up to the most dangerous coronavirus surge to hit the country, including the reopening of nightclubs and the easing of curfew hours.
“This is serious. The lockdown should not fail. The lockdown cannot fail,” said Firass Abiad, the head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, on Twitter on 14 January. “In the last 24 hours alone, four COVID-positive patients presented in cardiac arrest to our emergency room. One of them was a 19-year-old patient.”
A record 41 deaths were registered on 14 January, along with 5,196 new coronavirus cases.
On the eve of the shutdown, Lebanon registered 35 coronavirus deaths and 4,988 cases, with the total number of cases at 231,936. At the time of publication, the total number of COVID-related deaths was 1,740.
Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan tested positive for COVID-19 on 13 January and was taken to a hospital, where his condition was said to be good.
The 14-25 January lockdown comes shortly before the first shipment of vaccines is due to arrive. The country is expected to start its inoculation campaign in mid-February.
Meanwhile, the inability of Lebanese authorities to address the country’s massive political and economic crises — exacerbated by the massive explosion in Beirut’s seaport in August — have resulted in the country’s most drastic deterioration of human rights in decades, according to the “World Report 2021,” issued by Human Rights Watch on 14 January. The unprecedented economic crisis, compounded by the pandemic, has caused the poverty rate to double in the past year.
As the Lebanese pound depreciates, the price of basic goods rapidly increases, eroding people’s ability to afford food, shelter and health care. The pandemic has compounded the poverty and economic hardship, disproportionately affecting marginalized groups, including low-income families, people with disabilities, migrants, and refugees.
The government’s failure to transfer funds to hospitals has thrown Lebanon’s health care sector into crisis as well, compromising its ability to provide urgent and life-saving care, and to respond to the pandemic effectively.
Despite the current situation, the work of CNEWA in Lebanon continues. The dispensaries and primary health care centers that CNEWA supports — such as the Socio-medical Intercommunity Dispensary, the St. Anthony Dispensary and the Karagheusian Social Center — are exempt from the lockdown and are all operational, though at a reduced pace. All educational, seminary and formation programs, and psychosocial support continue remotely.
Michel Constantin is CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.