Lebanon must end its lockdown or face economic, fiscal, and monetary disasters that pose an even greater threat to the country than COVID-19.
For over a month now, Lebanon has been hearing about the “2nd wave” of coronavirus infections that would supposedly overwhelm hospitals, run rampant in the refugee camps, and kill thousands of people.
In other words, the exact same propaganda from March. At that time, the street consensus was “Lebanon will suffer more than any other country because we have a highly social culture” or “The virus will spread like wildfire in Lebanon because we don’t follow rules.”
Of course, we now know that COVID-19 in Lebanon turned out to be more sizzle than steak, for a number of reasons: a depressed economy meant less visitors from abroad potentially carrying the virus; barely existent mass transit meant less close contact for the virus to spread; an ongoing lack of stability meant no conferences or concerts bringing many people in close proximity; winter weather (on top of political incompetence) meant no street protests. In addition, there may be epidemiological reasons why Lebanon and other Mediterranean countries have been less affected, which we will know once the virus has been fully studied.
Yet the so-called “2nd wave,” we were told, would be precipitated by expatriated citizens returning to Lebanon on specially organized flights from various locations in Europe, the GCC and Africa in early May. Surely, it was careless to allow a traveler from Nigeria on one of those flights to break quarantine and infect dozens of others. As a result, some 100 new cases were uncovered in a four-day period, which sounds ominous. But it simply is not.
Judging by the track record of this pandemic globally, for Lebanon to face serious risk of deadliness, the disease would need to cause hundreds of new cases each day and sustain that pace, as in the case of Denmark, which has a population about the size of Lebanon’s and peaked in mid-March with thousands of new cases. Even then, Denmark’s hospitalization for COVID-19 peaked at 533, which is within Lebanon’s healthcare capacity. So even if Lebanon saw occasional spikes of 50 or 60 new daily cases in the past 2 weeks, it is not statistically dramatic, despite what we are led to believe. It hardly justifies extending restrictive measures at a time when other countries that have had a much more prevalent pandemic are beginning to ease them, even if we concede that Lebanon has a less robust testing capacity and healthcare infrastructure than nations like Denmark.
In late February, all the world saw the nightmare unfolding in northern Italy, proving that we indeed faced a very real threat and a dangerous global pandemic. This gave pause to those who rebuked the initial hysteria when the pandemic began, and inspired people in Lebanon to comply with restrictive measures, recognizing the limitations in the country’s healthcare capacity. But after the first death on March 7, the exponential growth of Europe never occurred, and the government managed quite well. The deaths followed a linear trend and reached only 26 after about 2 months. Only 4 people have died of the disease since the “2nd wave” arrived a month ago, and total deaths is only 5% of Denmark’s, one of the best performers in Europe. Indeed, Lebanese hospitals were never close to overwhelmed and COVID-19 is far from the most severe of the crises currently faced.
As of today, the country has a pandemic death rate of 4.3 per million population, which is less than over 110 other countries and less than one-twelfth the global average of 53.1 deaths per million population. To put it in further perspective, Lebanon’s overall annual death rate is 5.1 per thousand. So if we assume that there are 7 million people inside the borders, (including refugees, workers, etc.) that would mean 35,700 deaths per year or on average about 3,000 per month. So in more than 3 months since the first death from COVID-19 occurred, we can expect that almost 9,000 people have died in Lebanon in total. Only 30 deaths resulted from the pandemic, or about 1/3 of 1% of all the deaths. That is remarkably low.
It seemed that the government had understood this reality when it rolled out a reasonable 5-phase plan on April 24 to return to normalcy. Some of these measures have stayed on schedule, such as allowing restaurants to reopen at 30% capacity and finally reopening shopping malls and partially lifting nighttime curfew. But schools were left without clear guidance from the Education Ministry and did not reopen. We can only guess when vehicular mobility will be fully restored and if the much awaited and desperately needed reopening of normally scheduled flights to and from Beirut International Airport will in fact materialize on June 21, already pushed back from the initial date of June 8.
We can cynically conclude that the government abused its mandate by imposing 4 days of nearly complete lockdown last month, so as to not have to make the very unpopular choice of using force to suppress potentially violent demonstrations during Ramadan. But sooner or later, government warnings and calls for solidarity in the face of a dangerous pandemic will no longer be heeded by an understandably angry population.
Many people in Lebanon will soon be starving if economic normalcy does not return quickly. No compassionate person would advocate throwing all caution to the wind concerning public health, and businesses must be held accountable by the government to enforce mask-wearing and other reasonable precautionary measures. But the April plan to reopen the country must be fully restored so that people can get back to work and face the economic, fiscal, and monetary disasters that are far more dangerous to Lebanon than COVID-19.