BEIRUT: A full lockdown started in Lebanon yesterday, with residents barred even from grocery shopping and dependent on food deliveries, in a bid to slow a surge in novel coronavirus cases. The new restrictions were only loosely respected in some areas of the country, however, after mass protests in recent years against a political elite held responsible for a deepening economic crisis.
The lockdown, ordered after some hospitals started to run out of intensive care beds, includes a 24-hour curfew until Jan 25. Non-essential workers are barred from leaving their homes, and supermarkets are supposed to operate delivery services only. Those wishing to request an emergency exemption – to see a doctor for example – can do so by sending a mobile phone text message or by filling in a form online.
In the capital, roads were quieter than usual on Thursday morning, while non-essential shops remained shuttered. But in areas of Beirut where there were no security forces, some people ventured out to buy groceries from local shops. On social media, users circulated a picture of a traffic jam at one of the entrances to the capital.
The strict lockdown came into effect after caretaker health minister Hamad Hasan was admitted to hospital for treatment for COVID-19 on Wednesday evening, state media said. Its announcement on Monday raised fears of food shortages in impoverished and remote regions where deliveries are not readily available. For several days, Lebanese have flooded supermarkets and chemists in a desperate bid to stock up.
Some are worried the new restrictions will pile additional suffering on the country’s poorest. Charity Save the Children said it accepted the need for a strict response to the coronavirus uptick, but said it was “very concerned that vulnerable families and their children will be left to deal with a catastrophe on their own”. Lebanon, a country of more than six million, was already grappling with its worst economic downturn in decades when the pandemic hit.
Previous lockdowns have forced businesses to close and deprived daily wage earners of an income in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty. The World Bank Group on Tuesday approved a $246 million aid package to help 786,000 vulnerable Lebanese, but it is unclear when that assistance will arrive. Recent days have seen Lebanon register record daily COVID-19 caseloads in one of the steepest increases in transmission worldwide. In total, it has announced 231,936 cases since February last year, including 1,740 deaths.
Cases skyrocketed after authorities loosened restrictions during the holiday season, allowing restaurants and night clubs to remain open until 3:00 am, despite warnings from health professionals. A partial lockdown in place since January 7 has failed to halt the spread of the virus. Parliament is expected to convene Friday to examine a bill to allow the import and use of COVID-19 vaccines, which authorities have previously said will arrive in Lebanon by February.
A caretaker administration is overseeing the country’s COVID-19 response. The government resigned after a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at Beirut port last summer killed 200 people, wounded thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital. But a deeply divided political class has been unable to agree on a new cabinet to launch urgently needed reforms. – AFP