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A street vendor pushes his cart in Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, wearing a face mask to try to protect against the spread of COVID-19, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, March 30, 2020.
© 2020 Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council is discussing today new measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, which has seen an alarming surge in new cases and related deaths in recent weeks. The ministerial Covid-19 committee, as well as Parliament’s health committee, has recommended a full lockdown as the only option now to contain the outbreak, and health practitioners warn the healthcare system is fast reaching full capacity.
But a new lockdown will do little to curb the virus spread if it is not part of a wider national strategy to improve testing and contact tracing, increase hospital capacity, and properly enforce lockdown and social distancing rules. It will also increase economic suffering unless the government provides an emergency social safety net for a population unable to cope with more financial shocks.
More than 55 percent of Lebanon’s population lives under the poverty line – double last year’s figures – while the number of people living in extreme poverty has tripled from 8 percent in 2019 to 23 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages rose by more than 300 percent compared with last year.
The government is obliged under human rights law to ensure that everyone has adequate food, water, health care, and other basic needs, including when the population is subject to stay-at-home orders.
The last full lockdown in March and April exposed the inadequacies of Lebanon’s social protection system, as the government fumbled its way through the Covid-19 response without a timely, clear, coordinated plan to provide cash or in-kind assistance. The government’s plans to provide food assistance never materialized, and it repeatedly delayed promised financial relief, succumbing to political bickering over how to distribute the meager aid.
Today, many people in Lebanon are even more vulnerable. The government needs to urgently develop and implement a direct aid program to give people the resources they need to survive the crisis. And authorities should clearly communicate their economic relief plans to the public and clarify eligibility, timeline, and procedures.
Lebanon’s hospitals are filling up fast. If Lebanon wants to avert a humanitarian disaster, it should ensure people can comply with public health measures without worrying about their next meal.