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AMMAN, JORDAN - Lebanon is on alert for a potential second wave of coronavirus cases, following an alarming increase in local infections over the weekend. But some Lebanese say they fear dying of hunger more than from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, as the tiny Mediterranean country's economic and financial crisis worsens.
Authorities in Lebanon say they had to strengthen measures against violators and extend a countrywide nightly curfew by two hours amid a spike in coronavirus cases, some involving people returning from abroad.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan said one case involved a Lebanese returnee who should have isolated for 14 days, but "caused the transmission of infection to his family and the people around him." Officials warn Lebanon might be locked down for 48 hours "to conduct a field study in areas where cases were found." The latest reports put the number of COVID-19 infections at 859, with 26 deaths.
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded economic woes in Lebanon, which had plunged deep into financial crisis months before. Lebanese have seen the value of their savings tumble with the currency, the pound, losing more than half its value. Food prices have soared.
Nearly 50 percent of Lebanese are living below the poverty line, and unemployment stands at 35 percent, according to the government. Many employed have seen their salaries slashed in half.
Professor Habib Malik of the Lebanese American University tells VOA that hunger is driving anti-government protesters back to the streets, following a spate of mass protests.
"People are in such dire straits here. They're actually throwing caution to the wind when it comes to the virus, risking going out and protesting because the situation is so bad" said Malik. "There is famine, poverty, bankruptcy. People will say, 'OK, if we are going to die, we might as well try and fight before we die rather than sit at home to avoid the virus and then starve to death.' This is a very bleak kind of choice. It's scary."
The government and commercial banking sector are currently fighting over a plan to rescue the ailing economy, which is $91 billion in debt. The plan would include negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Malik says potential IMF aid will likely bring more misery to ordinary Lebanese who blame the entrenched political elite for years of corruption and mismanagement and whom they see as responsible for the current mess.
"This plan doesn't address some of the very basic issues: corruption, repatriation of stolen funds," said Malik. "Repatriating stolen funds is a very slow, very difficult process that would require sustained legal pursuit of culprits and international cooperation. The banks made huge profits as a result of the high interest they were giving people and they benefited from that. They were siphoning out of Lebanon tens of billions of dollars and we don't know where they are."
Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the government would ask for more than $10 billion from the IMF in the first phase of the loan plan. The IMF is expected to say it wants to see prior action on reform before the country asks for financial assistance.
The United Nations in Lebanon has launched an emergency appeal requesting $350 million to help people who are "most acutely at risk due to the COVID-19 outbreak and its immediate socio-economic impact."
While Malik and others welcome the call, analysts believe it's a drop in the bucket and there's always the question of how the money will be used.