Coronavirus in Near East: no money and job in Lebanon, and bread queues in Syria
Anhar Kochneva on how Beirut and Damascus residents are experiencing “self-isolation” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic
The coronavirus has affected almost every point of the globe, and the Near East hasn’t been an exception. As Realnoe Vremya’s columnist Anhar Kochneva living in Beirut says, quarantine put in Lebanon provoked a sudden fall in the national currency, unemployment and poverty of the population. A food crisis began in Syria with the unceasing civil war. Read more in Kochneva’s column written for our newspaper.
Separation as early as middle of March
Lebanon was separated from the rest of the world as early as 18 March. The country’s only airport closed on that day. And land borders with neighbouring Syria (the border with Israel had been closed for decades and is densely mined from both sides). Since then, one can enter Lebanon to only return the Lebanese, their family members, foreigners who have a residence permit in Lebanon as well as UN employees (there is a big contingent of peacemakers in the south of the country) and workers of diplomatic missions.
The airport is closed “partly” — private jets, planes with citizens going back to Lebanon and so on can land there. And quarantine with that “self-isolation” was put in the country on 21 March, moreover, the Ministry of Internal Affairs threatened with different repressions for violating it. At first, the quarantine was put until 29 March, however, it was prolonged until 12 April with possible extension if needed.
Everything is expensive, no money, no chance to make money
However, unrest began in Lebanon a week later. A lot of people turned out in a situation when they had not only nothing to eat themselves but also (and worse) nothing to feed their hungry children. And the case isn’t that many grocery stores in the vicinity of the home closed mainly in the mountainous country. The case is also that too many depend on daily gains. If you haven’t earned today, tomorrow you will be hungry. But even this is a tip of the “iceberg”.
It is by far worse that by the declaration of quarantine, people happened not to have a rainy day fund: everything the poor part of the population accumulated has been either spent for five months, since the riots began, which entailed a domestic financial crisis and a crisis of overdue payments in the country, or is on bank accounts, and people have long been unable to withdraw something because the plotters of riots deliberately blocked the operation of the banking system. Neither did they allow to make money and use the accounts. In the end, as Al Arabiya Arab channel claimed recently, about 700,000 people in Lebanon were beyond the poverty line at the moment.
Moreover, awkward attempts at keeping the collapse of the local currency against the US dollar (earlier the dollar in Lebanon was in free circulation, and a bill was calculated in the two currencies at once — pay whichever currency you want). There was created a situation when, for instance, prices in shops were calculated at the rate of 2,500-3,000 pounds per dollar a long time ago, and if one tried to pay with a card in dollars in the same shop, you will be charged a sum divided into 1,500 pounds per buck (the official rate). So owners of non-cash dollars have to pay for goods twice more or even higher.
Everything is expensive, there is no money, there is no chance of making money, a bank can’t give money right now (by the way, due to the epidemic, banks stopped giving anything several days ago — earlier, the limit was $1,000 a month), nothing can be obtained via Western (it is both closed and nobody will now give you anything in dollars, only at the rate of 1,500 instead of 2,600 in the black market). And “stay home”. Yes, dream on.
Quarantine is expected to be lifted on 12 April
Ultimately, those who really need it were allowed to work and move due to urgent affairs from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Even a car can’t be used — two people were fined the day before yesterday next to our house: these two cars were driving right behind my neighbour, but he managed to turn to our courtyard, while those people were stopped 10 metres far from our house. It isn’t allowed to walk in our district (countryside in the mountains), as it is rumoured. Only grocery stores are open, but till 5 p.m. And everybody must wear masks, otherwise, they won’t be allowed to enter — employees will bring what you need outside. A usual mask costs about a dollar, and it seems they are available in pharmacies. McDonald’s in Beirut is open — food can be bought in the drive-through.
Most of the infected people brought the virus from abroad. But some contracted it here. A Syrian woman (a Lebanese man’s woman) fell ill in one of the towns in our district who went to Istanbul. Now there are 12 confirmed cases there. But she didn’t contact with people much. Another woman (Lebanese) got the infection in Italy, then she went to Britain and hosted a birthday party for children when she was back to Lebanon, a party for 50 girlfriends and did sport in the gym. She is easy-going.
As of 3 April, 518 cases of infection were confirmed in the country, 17 people died, a woman who was the ambassador of the Philippines to Lebanon is among them. Many are scared in general, the already tough life because of the economic crisis became complicated. We are expecting the quarantine to be lifted on 12 April, but it can be extended. About 20,000 Lebanese who are abroad in the countries with the bad epidemic situation want to go home. I think many among them were going to wait for the end of the economic instability in the last months in Europe — yeah, right. Those who didn’t manage to go home until 18 March are planned to be returned on Sunday.
Much worse in Syria
A lot of what has been said above about Lebanon refers to neighbouring Syria too. But everything is much worse there. In fact, there were officially found 10 cases (though many assume there must be more, however, there isn’t enough diagnostic, the coronavirus can be mistaken of habitual forms of pneumonia). There are two fatalities so far. Though, actually, they are “almost” three: a pregnant woman died first, they even didn’t manage to take her to the hospital. The country has long and significantly been isolated from the rest of the world.
But the quarantine and “self-isolation” when the national currency suddenly cheapened against the dollar (due to the events in Lebanon and consequent lack of these dollars, now the monthly wage is just $20-30 a month), while it is now forbidden to go to work without a special permit. So now the population is feeling really…not good.
To avoid long queues for bread near bakeries, a system of distributors in every district has been introduced. But distributors don’t receive enough produce, many Syrians are complaining that they haven’t been able to buy bread for several days already. A video shot by somebody has recently been shown: some 50 people rush behind a car carrying bread to the shop — they want to form a queue. And it is only the beginning…