03/30/2020, 19.00
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As coronavirus sparks strong sense of national unity, students want to go home

by Pierre Balanian

Christians and Muslims shut churches and mosques to pray at home. Medical staff cheered for a minute. Lebanon has many doctors but few medical facilities. The poor (70 per cent of the population) and two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees are at risk. Curfew from 7pm to 5am. Lebanese abroad (especially in Africa) kept away for fear of infections. Students in Europe are unable to receive money from banks. Hezbollah leader makes historic speech, slamming banks for clinging onto money that could become waste paper as a result of the world crisis.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The COVID-19 viral outbreak is uniting the always divided Lebanese.

Christian and Muslim religious leaders have led the way, urging their faithful to stay away from churches and mosques to pray at home.

Artists and TV journalists yesterday called on people to cheer and thank healthcare workers from their balconies at 8 pm tonight. A video by famous artists spread with the Arabic hashtag "a cheer for the heroes", called on the Lebanese, at home and abroad, to cheer for a minute the country’s doctors, nurses, hospital staff, pharmacists, civil protection officers, security agents, disinfestation and cleaning staff, and sanitation workers, i.e. the real unknown soldiers on the front-line of the battle against an invisible enemy.

So far only 442 people have tested positive in Lebanon for the coronavirus, with 30 hospitalised and ten deaths.  This is a small number compared with what is happening in other countries, but terrible for a country like Lebanon already on the verge of economic, political and social collapse after months of anti-corruption protests.

The 2019–20 Lebanese protests are now over. Last Friday, protest tens in central Beirut came down. Now people are all terrified about how to deal with this pandemic, in a country with many doctors, but without the infrastructure necessary to provide healthcare and welfare for all.

Lebanon is home to about six 6 million people, including two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and cannot cope with the evolving pandemic. It is a miracle if the epidemic has been contained so far, in overcrowded cities, not to mention refugee camps, real shanty towns.

Initially, few in Lebanon felt concerned about the outbreak. But seeing what is happening in Italy, France, Spain and the United States, people began to take notice, fearful, even the conspiracy theory supporters, who are numerous in the Middle East.

Quickly, the authorities closed the land border with Syria, even before any coronavirus was reported in that country. Yesterday Syrian authorities announced its first death and nine cases of infection.

Subsequently, Lebanon’s only civilian airport was shut down, except for diplomatic and military personnel of the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon. Despite the lack a national emergency legislation, a 7pm-5am curfew was imposed on the whole country last Thursday.

According to many, the curfew is a precaution to prevent armed attacks against supermarkets in a country awash with weapons. The curfew has been broken, especially in Tripoli, where some workers without steady jobs say they will starve if they don't work.

This is the major issue. What can the unemployed and unprotected workers do under a government lockdown? What can workers on half salary for months because of the protests do? What can Lebanon’s poor (more than 70 per cent of the population) do? What can Syrian refugees already in a desperate situation do?

The Lebanese government, which has decided not to repay the country’s foreign debt, has set aside 75 billion pounds (about US$ 50 million) for the most affected families, providing a monthly subsidy of 180,000 Lebanese pounds (around US0) for the next two months. However, this has already proven controversial since mayors and political parties will decide who gets the money in a country rife with clientelism and nepotism.

Another divisive issue is what to do with Lebanese citizens abroad. Many members of the Lebanese community in Africa – among the first in the past to send cash aid in response to government appeals – now want to be repatriated from African countries, especially Ghana, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the virus is starting to spread rapidly and medical facilities are limited.

With the pretext of the airport closed, the government is prevaricating, whilst some politicians have been criticised for expressing fear of further contagion should Lebanese citizens come home from abroad.

Saturday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech. For the first time in the movement’s history, the Israeli "enemy" was not mentioned. Instead Nasrallah came to the defence of the marginalised at home and the Lebanese abroad, taking an unprecedented swipe at Lebanese banks for refusing to allow people to take cash from their bank accounts.

“Think of the afterlife! What you will tell the Lord, you who clung to money which, due to the world crisis, is in danger of becoming worthless waste paper,” he said. Around the world, “currencies will collapse,” he said.

The most distressing call comes from Lebanese students in Europe. Eager to come home, they would rather die with their loved ones than alone abroad.

Lebanese students in Italy, France and Germany are ready to foot the bill, but their families cannot send them money because Lebanese banks only allow money transfers for economic or medical reasons.

Following the harsh words about the fate of Lebanese abroad, which "is a duty as well as an imperative to bring home", the government, warns Nasrallah, will be forced to quickly adopt a constructive solution for them.

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