A man carries a child as he arrives, along with other Lebanese nationals repatriated from Qatar, at a hotel in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Agence France-Presse
Inventive Lebanese and Iraqi revolutionaries driven from the streets and squares of their countries by coronavirus lockdowns are devising new means of sustaining their demands for thorough-going political reform. Those who took part in mass protests in both countries from October until the virus outbreak, have gone home but not given up.
Lebanese activists protest the government’s belated and inadequate response to the health crisis and continue to blame the sectarian political class for the parlous state of the country’s economy.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a technocrat appointed in January, remains largely impotent because the levers of power remain in the hands of the politicians, bankers and businessmen who have failed and looted the country. Once the COVID-crisis ends, these figures could expect to pay a price as their misrule has deprived Lebanese of care and services needed to survive physically and economically.
In a bid to stave off post-virus reckoning, Lebanon’s ruling political parties have established quarantine centres and been sanitising, testing, and delivering aid to needy areas. But, they cannot make up for lost decades.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported last month that Lebanon’s financial crisis has led to a shortage of medical supplies and of doctors and nurses to provide treatment. Lebanon lacks dollars to import vital masks, gloves, protective gear, and ventilators and has not paid public and private hospitals for past and present treatment for patients on social security and military health funds. Lebanon has registered more than 600 cases and 20 deaths.
At the insistence of political factions, thousands of Lebanese citizens are returning from exile although Beirut’s international airport is closed to normal traffic.
They not only drain the country’s scarce resources but also have to self-insolate when they arrive. Some pose a threat because they have been infected with the coronavirus.
Lebanese, like all of us, struggle in “survival mode” made far worse by decades of mismanagement and corruption. Lacking a constant supply of electricity and clean water, facing mass unemployment, beset by pollution and threatened by absence of public health facilities, Lebanese are increasingly threatened by infection. Consequently, they can be expected to resume protests once the corona-crisis tapers off or ends.
For now, activists are taking to social media to promote their cause, training with the Red Cross to be of use in the battle against the virus, and joining efforts to provide support to the poor, elderly, and vulnerable in the society. Citizens from Tripoli and the Chouf district are in great need. Al Monitor reports the Defenders of the City — a group founded in Tripoli that spread throughout the country to protect protesters — has been sanitising Tripoli’s neighbourhoods, and distributing food to the city, the poorest in the country, and to the Akkar.
Syrian and Palestinian refugees suffer from Beirut’s neglect although they are in danger of contracting the coronavirus and infecting Lebanese citizens.
HRW revealed that curfews restrict the movement of Syrian refugees, increasing the risks of contagion and the hardships of tent-bound families already suffering from deprivation. While the Lebanese authorities attempt to contain the virus by carrying out disinfection of the informal Syrian camps, closure of the Lebanese-Syrian border has made it impossible for them to return to Syria.
Palestinian refugee neighbourhoods where people live at close quarters are also a major problem for Lebanon as they could become major sources of infection. Palestinian parties have conducted virus awareness campaigns, confined people to their homes, and provided hand sanitisers. The UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is facing its most serious funding deficit and the $14 million emergency coronavirus appeal has raised only $4 million for UN registered refugees in the region.
Iraq’s physical proximity and political reliance on Iran, the regional coronavirus epicentre and spreader, makes it all the more difficult for Baghdad to deal with the virus. Tehran, preoccupied with its own battle against the virus cannot be of assistance. Iraq is on its own as the US, which is responsible for many of its woes, is not providing the massive aid needed.
Although Iraq should be a wealthy country due to revenues from oil exports — which in good years amount to $70 billion — rampant corruption combined with the current low price of oil have imposed austerity on Iraq. As soon as the virus emerged and began to spread, the government compelled employees in the private sector to stay home, depriving them of wages. By contrast, civil servants were ordered to go to work although they had not been paid for months. This has been one of the main causes of the popular demonstrations.
Until sanctions were imposed in 1990 and war was waged in 1991 due to its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had one of the most professional and well-run health care sectors in the region. Services were provided free to the vast majority of Iraqis. They also benefitted from good water and sanitation systems. Sanctions, blockade, two US-led wars, and the campaign against Daesh have deprived Iraqis of these essentials and devastated the country. The sectarian model of governance imposed by the US occupation regime in 2003, has produced the civil conflict, ineptitude and graft that have prompted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to pour into the streets.
Their situation is even worse than conditions in Lebanon. Virus lock-downs and curfews have forced them to leave the streets and squares they occupied in Baghdad and the Shia south. However, like the Lebanese revolutionaries, they remain active on social media and in civil society organisations striving to provide food, medicine, and corona-awareness for the multitude of poor people.
The designation of intelligence chief Mustafa Al Kadhimi as prime minister, the third figure to be chosen in 10 weeks, is unlikely to improve the situation or satisfy the protesters. He was proposed after the second nominee, reputed to be anti-Iran, withdrew his candidacy.
An independent, who tackled graft in the intelligence service, Kadhimi is said to have the support of the US and Iran, Shia factions in parliament and, perhaps, some protesters. If he is to have popular backing he will have to override the sectarian model and deal with the issues, which have laid Iraq low since the US occupation. As in Lebanon, an easing or an end to the COVID-plague is certain to return Iraqis to the streets in even greater numbers because the country cannot hope to contain the virus and prevent mass infection and fatalities.