Overcrowded hospitals forced to refuse patients, public and private health care in a collapsing state, nightmarish numbers: this is the current apocalyptic scenario unfolding in Lebanon. One word rules: wasta, which in Lebanese dialect means “a connection,” “someone you know,” that is, the right “contact” needed to find a place in a hospital, and which today means nothing less than life or death.
This is, after all, the cornerstone for how Lebanese society has been working for decades, with an absent and thoroughly corrupt state. Moreover, health care in Lebanon—with the exception of a few public hospitals—is entirely private, like most of the strategic sectors, an effect of the unbridled neoliberalism policies of the last thirty years, from which the people have certainly not benefited.
“For my father, we paid 2.5 million a day for the bed, $1,300—we had to pay in dollars—for 5 doses of Remdesivir, plus 4 million for various examinations.” The exchange rate applied is about 4,000 liras for $1, 1 million for $250. Fortunately, Lama’s father made it. He was able to afford it.
During the last week, there have been between 4,000 and 6,000 cases, 30 to 60 deaths per day, with a positivity rate of over 15% in a territory as large as Abruzzo. And that’s only “the tip of the iceberg,” according to Dr. J. Khalife, public health specialist and member of the “Zero Covid” independent committee, which estimates 15,000-20,000 actual cases per day, as tests cost money, are not easily accessible, and there is inadequate monitoring. The first vaccines won’t come until February.
On Monday, the High Council of Defense declared a state of health emergency. From now until January 25, the country is in a tight lockdown, with a curfew from 5pm to 5am. Offices, banks, stores and bars are closed, only grocery stores are open, with the exception of supermarkets, which will only be able to operate deliveries, same as restaurants.
There are also restrictions at the airport: people are allowed to enter only with a negative swab and are required to book a hotel at a fixed price of $100 per night until the result of the swab on arrival at the airport, which again must paid in dollars and not in lire—even for those who have a private home in the country. It is still the usual profiteering business à la libanaise.
Lebanon has been going through a deep social, political and economic crisis since October 2019, leading to massive popular protests, the devaluation of the currency by 80%, the freezing of Lebanese bank accounts and the declaration of insolvency in March. Then COVID came, with the closure of the only airport from March to July, then the terrible explosion that devastated the city on August 4, causing about 200 deaths and thousands of injured. From November 2019 to now, there have been four prime ministers (Hariri, Diab, Adib and Hariri again). Since October, the country has been waiting for the formation of the new government, theoretically backed by France, to reform the country and get out of the crisis.
The fact that the Minister of Health is in isolation because his coworkers tested positive for COVID on Wednesday is emblematic, even if only on a symbolic level, of how much the situation has gotten out of hand. The upsurge of contagions is undoubtedly also due to the practically unregulated reopenings during the Christmas period, which, while on the one hand giving a minimum of life to the economy that was on its knees, have led, on the other hand, to this emergency. The lines at supermarkets on the eve of the lockdown certainly didn’t help.
The Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that the country is undergoing “the most drastic deterioration of rights in decades,” which COVID has exasperated. It is an abyss from which Lebanon and its people are unlikely to emerge unscathed.