A crisis within a crisis – COVID-19 in Lebanon

By Saksha Menezes |

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque located in Downtown Beirut | Djedj/Pixaby 

The COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon is a crisis within a crisis. The virus hit Lebanon amidst a wider socio-economic meltdown which has shaken the country within recent months. Despite a relatively effective approach to the pandemic, many problems still face the country. There were few measures in place which would mitigate the economic impact of lockdown so many protestors have returned to the streets. 

Beginning in October last year, civil protests began to take place in Lebanon. Initially triggered by planned taxes on gasoline, tobacco and VoIP calls on applications such as WhatsApp, the protests rapidly expanded into a country-wide condemnation of sectarian rule, a stagnant economy, unemployment and endemic corruption. 

As a result of these protests, Lebanon entered a political crisis, with President Saad Hariri tendering his resignation. By 21st January, supported by Iran-backed Shi-ite group Hezbollah and its allies, former Minister of Education Hassan Diab was named Prime Minister after three months of mass protests. However, protests and civil disobedience continued.

As such, even before lockdown, Lebanon was going through an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. The local currency had more than halved in value since October amid a hard currency liquidity shortage. Inflation and unemployment soared with the International Labour Organisation estimating job losses at 1.59 million in a 2019 report. Lebanon had also defaulted on its sovereign debt in March of this year. The World Bank had raised the fear that half the population could face poverty due to the deteriorating economic situation. 

Amidst these precarious circumstances, Lebanon recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 21st. By mid-March, over 100 had died and lockdown had been imposed, enforced by security forces. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened the economic problems. The government has failed to adopt measures to alleviate economic hardship, meaning lockdown measures are highly unsustainable as people feel obligated to return to work to provide for their families. The government has only spent around 0.3% GDP, including safety net and expanded health care budget combined. This is ten times less than Jordan or Tunisia. 

The International Monetary Fund is now forecasting a 12 percent decline in Lebanon’s gross domestic product this year. The Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh told CNN that up to 75 percent of the people require aid.

Unfortunately, a major food crisis is also expected. Writing in the Washington Post, President Hassan Diab has said ‘Once the breadbasket of the Eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon is facing a dramatic challenge that seemed unimaginable a decade ago: the risk of a major food crisis.’

More than half of Lebanese food is imported but now, imported food is more expensive than ever. For instance, eighty percent of the country’s wheat has been coming from Ukraine and Russia but last month, Russia suspended wheat exports with Ukraine expected to follow soon.

The situation is bleak and Lebanon is not alone in its situation. Due to COVID-19, a worldwide food crisis is emerging. The World Food Programme estimates that the pandemic could double the number of low and middle income countries facing food shortages this year. 

With limited resources, domestic approaches will be insufficient. The magnitude of the oncoming global crisis, requires a globally coordinated response.