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In Lebanon, a Pandemic of Hunger

Two weeks ago, it seemed every conversation in Lebanon was about keeping safe from the virus. The bustling streets of Beirut were quiet; everyone wore masks and gloves and glared at anyone who coughed in public. The smell of hand sanitizers filled elevators.

Back from my grocery runs, I disinfected everything I bought and put my plastic bags on the balcony for a week before reusing them. Last week I came back from the store and nearly forgot to wash my hands as I pulled out the grocery bill and pointed out the exorbitant prices to my husband. We crossed out things we could no longer regularly afford, like cheese.

We are the lucky ones. In September, about one-third of Lebanon’s population lived below the poverty line. Today, it is closer to half the population. Lebanon has been on a lockdown to stem the coronavirus outbreak since mid-March, when the government closed borders and “nonessential” businesses.

The Lebanese government has been praised for its swift response to the pandemic, but the crisis was also a gift for the politicians.

The Lebanese had been protesting against their political elites since October and refusing to leave the protest sites. Set off by a proposed tax on WhatsApp phone calls announced on Oct. 17 — one of the many proposed austerity measures meant to offset Lebanon’s staggering $86 billion debt — the protests targeted the government for decades of corruption, sectarian power-sharing and the broken banking system.

Lebanon’s banks lent depositors’ money to the government and no longer have the dollar liquidity to match the numbers in people’s bank accounts. By November, the banks placed strict limits on withdrawals, some allowing a mere $100 a month. These withdrawal limits functioned as unofficial capital controls.

The Lebanese lira, which had long been exchanged at 1,507 lira to the dollar through a feat of “financial engineering” by Riad Salameh, the longtime governor of the Central Bank, began losing value.

Protesters, though diminished in numbers, continued rallying across the country, in weekly marches, in assemblies outside bank branches, outside the homes of politicians and government ministries.

When the country went into lockdown on March 23, there were 60 reported coronavirus cases. Forecasts predicted at least 400 deaths by the end of June with extreme social distancing. The protesters left the streets and returned home. The government swiftly took the opportunity to dismantle protesters’ tents.

The banks elected to open by appointment to business owners and refused access to small depositors, who couldn’t even withdraw their paltry dollar allowances. The absence of dollars from the market, combined with the Central Bank releasing a series of circulars, each decreeing different exchange rates, contributed to the extreme instability of the lira and a frenzied demand for dollars.

After the lockdown, the lira went into free fall. Many lost their income to the lockdown, others to the devaluation. Prices increased almost by the day. The government promised 400,000 lira of aid to needy families but it squabbled about distributing the aid for so long that by the time there was an agreement, it had been devalued to less than $100. And the aid is yet to be distributed.

On April 25, the lira hit an all-time low: about 4,000 to 4,200 lira to the dollar, a devaluation of over 60 percent. The anger that had been building up exploded once more onto the streets, with the biggest mobilizations taking place in Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city.

Protesters in several towns, including Tripoli and Beirut, broke the nighttime curfew, blocking roads and setting fire to banks for allowing big depositors to smuggle billions out of the country while the poorest can no longer afford lentils.

The new wave of protests has an edge of desperation that wasn’t there before. The army has responded with shocking violence, using tear gas, rubber bullets and live bullets to crush the protesters.

On the night of April 27, the army killed Fawaz al-Samman, a 26-year-old man, and wounded dozens of others during protests in Tripoli. Mr. al-Samman, a motorbike mechanic, had been struggling to support his wife and infant daughter after his income took a hit from the crisis.

The next day, in an attempt to defuse popular anger, the army released a video showing soldiers distributing aid to people, intercut with scenes of angry protesters and ending with the tagline: “Is this how a favor is repaid?” The video caused immense outrage and was taken down hours later.

Protesters who have been arrested have spoken of being tortured in custody, beaten viciously and electrocuted by army intelligence units. Against these horrors and the everyday despair of no longer being able to afford the simplest things, the threat of the virus, despite 741 cases and 25 deaths in Lebanon so far, has faded into abstraction.

To worry about being struck by illness, you must have some sense of a future it might rob you of. And the future in Lebanon seems incredibly bleak.

After the usual infighting, last week the government announced its economic “rescue plan,” which consists of appealing to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Should the I.M.F. approve the request, we will have to contend with austerity measures that will only increase poverty. But that is if the notoriously corrupt Lebanese state can even meet the minimum reforms that the I.M.F. requires.

The lockdown is set to ease on May 24, with restaurants and bars reopening gradually. How many Lebanese can afford to go?

Hanan Bazzi, my mother-in-law, who recently retired after working for decades as an accountant, lost most of her pension to the financial crisis. “At least the coronavirus has trained us to cook with whatever you happen to have,” she said. “How to stay home and save money on outings. Even after the virus disappears, we will still have to keep living the smaller lives it taught us to live.”


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