Dire Times in Beirut as Lebanon Faces Possible Collapse

A photo taken recently from the author’s balcony, in Cornet Chahwan, Lebanon, with Beirut in the distance. He writes that being quarantined at home means he can “finally breathe fresh air” as the sky is no longer tainted by the nitrogen-dioxide inversion on the horizon. Yet the country is bracing for chaos. 

BEIRUT — In these dire times of the Covid-19 crisis, I am quarantined at home in the hills overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean. I take comfort in the prospects of clear, clean skies, no longer tainted by the brown nitrogen-dioxide inversion on the horizon. I can finally breathe fresh air.

The crowded protests of the last months have given way to an empty calm — all is quiet here in Beirut and the rest of Lebanon, where everyone is quarantined. I am rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a book that I must have, subconsciously at least, associated with the pandemic. Quarantaine, or karantina in Arabic, is actually a small working-class neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Beirut, wedged between the highway and the sea, named eponymously for the hospital that stood as a bulwark against the plague that wreaked havoc on the periphery of the Mediterranean basin in the 19th century. While the plague reigned in neighboring lands from Constantinople to Istanbul, from Smyrna to Izmir, from Cyprus to Egypt, this “quarantine” successfully preserved Beirut for 15 months with ships continuing to arrive in its ports filled with goods and passengers.

Beirut, to me, has always appeared vibrant yet mysterious, an alluring city of discerning beauty. Most of its establishments and shops are closed now, and those that have stayed open have few customers. There are only panhandlers, homeless refugees or worried people stockpiling basic goods.

Beirut is facing the prospects of a perfect storm: the trifecta of financial collapse, rampant corruption and a lethal pandemic. Officially, more than half a million Lebanese live in dire poverty. Corruption continues to permeate all aspects of society. People are angry, effete and helpless and, with the de facto devaluation of the lira, they are getting poorer by the day. Yet the corrupt politicians still plunder what is left of the remaining resources, to pocket bribes that — by some accounts — run to millions of dollars and to mismanage what is left of the economy.

I can still hear the chants of people of all creeds, all sects, all denominations in every city, town and village in Lebanon; they began protesting in October 2019 for an end to the corruption and the mismanagement. The unanimous protest of the populace: “We want an end to the corruption. . . . Stop the plundering by the leaders — politicians, bureaucrats, bankers. . . . All of them, and we mean all of them” rings loud and clear, even across the valley of Covid-19.

At the onset of the pandemic, the Lebanese government took draconian measures to prevent — or, at least, limit — the spread of the virus. Without a full lockdown, it had been predicted that the country would have more than 2.5 million infections and 150,000 deaths, in a country of nearly seven million people. In early March, the best-case scenario forecasted that Lebanon would have more than 13,000 infections and more than 450 deaths by the summer. Nearly two months since that first case, Lebanon has reported that 733 people have been infected by the virus and 25 have died. Our toll is far less than Norway’s, which is widely regarded as having done a good job of managing Covid-19. Despite having a slightly smaller population — 5.3 million compared to Lebanon’s 6.9 million, Norway has more than 7,800 cases and 210 deaths.

Paradoxically, Lebanon’s notorious dysfunction compelled the government to take extreme measures from the start — imposing one of the earliest and strictest lockdowns globally. Lebanese health officials feared that social distancing would be resisted by the population and nearly impossible in the refugee camps. The presence of just one case there could have sparked an epidemic. Uncharacteristically, the Lebanese people obeyed the stay-at-home order — probably out of fear of the worst-case scenario.

After the government announced the clampdown, Lebanon’s military and security forces were deployed across the country using army helicopters to call on residents through loudspeakers not to venture out, while soldiers set up roadblocks and carried out foot patrols on the streets, excepting cases of “extreme necessity”; the penalty for disobeying included heavy fines and imprisonment of up to three years. In addition, more than 70 Syrian refugee camps were decontaminated. TeleLiban, the state-run TV channel, ran a series of educational seminars to ensure that children at home continued learning.

In taking these steps — and quarantining everyone — Lebanon hoped to escape the repercussions of the pandemic. Churches and mosques were shut right through both Maronite and Orthodox Easter celebrations and now through Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayers. Both periods have been concurrent with the quarantine, and any notion of religious objection has been supressed by sheikhs and priests alike; they have asked their congregations to stay at home while they lead prayers from empty mosques and churches, social distancing at its effective best. Religion duly bent a knee of deference to science! Religion is nonetheless still everywhere — on the radio and television, from loudspeakers on the minarets and bell towers blaring across the hills and valleys, on every lip, in every home, in every conversation, whether oral or digital.

Clearly, Covid-19 has no preference in terms of identity, ideology, sect, class or age, so the pandemic has mobilized all social forces to confront it. Equally clear, the dishonest politicians have impoverished the people of all religions and regions, and the people have protested, unified in their poverty and rejection of rampant corruption. Once the quarantine is relaxed, the revolution will inevitably return to the streets, even with social distancing, to continue the protests to end corruption. Already, as the government introduces measures to relax the quarantine, defiant protesters are returning to the streets in Tripoli and Beirut with signs condemning the “fassad” —  Arabic for corruption — and the sleazy politicians. With inflation soaring, unemployment spiraling and malfeasance unabated at all levels, hunger is palpable. Lebanon is bracing against more chaos and unrest.

Let’s take some hope from the recent headline in The Washington Post: “Lebanon is in a big mess. But on coronavirus, it’s doing something right.” This messed-up country has done something right when it comes to Covid-19. Lebanon has not only survived, but it has also emerged as a coronavirus success so far. Let us hope the country can survive the looming threats of political and economic collapse.

This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna; Chicago; Singapore and Madrid.

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Sam Mattar

Sam Mattar

Sam Mattar is the managing director and founding partner of Construction Dynamics Solutions, an independent consultancy focused on the recovery of disruptions to construction projects. He is an internationally recognized architectural and building engineer and a former official of the UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat). He holds a B.Sc. degree from the University of Leeds, an M.Sc. from the University of Calgary and a Ph.D. from Concordia University.

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