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Voices From the Pandemic: Lebanon Confronts an ‘Invisible, Insidious Enemy’

Christine Tanielian is a social worker at the Howard Karagheusian Socio-Medical Center in Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, which CNEWA has been supporting since 2013.  

As a child, I grew up in a convivial home atmosphere, where Christian values were cherished and held dear. Attending Sunday Masses was considered fundamental in my growing-up years; it solidified my faith, which served as a shield throughout my life when faced with quandaries. Over the years, as I started to understand the meaning of the hymns and the prayers, I became interested in an invocation pronounced during liturgy that says, “Lord, protect us from visible and invisible enemies.” I knew well what the visible enemies meant, but pondered a lot about the invisible ones, and finally concluded that they should be envy, pride, and all the ignoble traits that lead humans to self-destruction and quashing relationships.

COVID-19 revealed itself as a new, invisible, and insidious enemy, which destroys the individual without giving a grace period to reconsider oneself and seek a way out.

The virus showed its strength in spreading rapidly among humans and taking the lives of those infected.

The human race and powerful governments all over the world, endowed with all the resources of science and unprecedented technological advances, found themselves powerless.  

Mankind, which over centuries considered itself stronger and more powerful than the Creator of the universe, was defeated by this tiny coronavirus.

The first case of COVID-19 in Lebanon was confirmed on 21 February 2020; since then, the number of cases has continued to grow exponentially. Just 23 days after the first confirmed case in Lebanon, with 120 cases of coronavirus confirmed and a death toll of three, the government declared a state of health emergency. 

On 13 March 2020, the Ministry of Public Health issued the Regional Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19, aiming at scaling up the preparedness and response capacities in Lebanon for prevention, early detection, and rapid response to the disease. With limited hospital resources and a failing economic situation, the Lebanese healthcare system needed the help of the primary care sector.

A multidisciplinary team of nurses, doctors, housekeepers, suppliers, administrators and community leaders were needed to prevent the spread of the infection and to contain the damage.

The Howard Karagheusian Center continued its activities throughout this period, using all the precautions to deter the spread of the virus. With the start of the pandemic, we faced many challenges: from poor preparedness for such a crisis to limited coordination with other sectors, limited community awareness and, most importantly, limited funds. Despite all these barriers, we were able to reach out to every member in the community who needed medical consultations, medications, and laboratory assistance.

“We are looking forward to brighter days, when people will be able to get back to their routine and face the future with hope.”  

Christine Tanielian

Due to the increased rates of unemployment, devaluation of the Lebanese currency and the inflation, many people are unable to provide the basic needs of their families. Hunger and starvation are threatening everyone, not only the poor but also the middle class.  We have tried our best to intervene, to counsel via telephone calls, to guide them to other organizations and provide food aid to around 200 people.

The quarantine itself brought everyone to self-evaluation and reconsidering of priorities. In our hectic routine we always lacked time to pray, to savor quality time with our family members, and to cultivate our minds and souls.  We all sought power, recognition, wealth and progress in our professions only to find ourselves helpless combating a minute, invisible enemy.

Inside the house, life seemed calm and I enjoyed the serenity of these days. I relished the beauty of nature around me, which I had neglected for years. I followed the blossoming of my plants, which promised life and hope for a better future.

But once I stepped outside of my house, I found the world so strange and frightening. Masks and gloves everywhere. The neighborhoods, sad and depressing. People, gloomy and disappointed. Yet, in the midst a life-threatening pandemic, inspiring human traits bloomed to console the hopeless, and to assure that tomorrow might be brighter only if we once again consider each other as equals, and look to God and ask for his mercy and intervention.

Apart from the fear the virus caused in taking lives so randomly, there were economic consequences. Unemployment became a social and financial catastrophe. With no income at all, some people found themselves on the verge of hunger and starvation. In addition, the enforced social distancing kept people from meeting each other and consoling and supporting each other.

And in the midst of this dilemma, the noble and magnanimous side of the human nature emerged. Community institutions turned into charity centers distributing food and offering services. Hundreds of volunteer youth took the initiative to deliver food to the elderly and to the vulnerable of society. Medications were given free of charge. Landlords who once threatened to evict tenants if rent was late became compassionate. Some offered prolonged grace periods.

People all over the world recognized their fragility; thanks to the swiftness of news circulating through social media, they began relating to each other as equals. The millionaire and the beggar, the famous and the obscure, the powerful and the powerless were equally threatened — revealing the shared nature of everyone breathing on this planet.

The closing of the churches had a powerful impact. The empty churches, especially on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week, disappointed everyone. But what then happened was unexpected. Family members for the first time gathered in their apartments, knelt down and prayed together. They asked for God’s mercy and intervention. Facebook and Instagram posts displayed prayers and Gospel verses. Church pastors preached the word of God on social media. Children started to read the Bible. People acknowledged that their hectic routine had led them nowhere. On the contrary, it had devastated their families and had played havoc on their inner peace and tranquility.

As a result of COVID-19, an opportunity arose to cultivate part of our human nature that had been ignored or forgotten. Priorities changed. Family bonds became stronger. Lessons were learned. 

Nature rejoiced. Animals started to appear on highways in different countries, birds started singing and flying freely in the clear blue skies. They all felt at home, even if for a short period of time — free in their occupied homeland.

We are looking forward to brighter days, when people will be able to get back to their routine and face the future with hope.    

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