Millions in Lebanon may starve during lockdown if government does provide aid: HRW

Millions in Lebanon may starve during lockdown if government does provide aid: HRW
In locked-down Lebanon, millions of residents may not be able to afford food or necessities, after the economic crisis already left many without income or access to funds.
3 min read
08 April, 2020
Businesses that survived Lebanon's economic crisis are now having to close [AFP]

Millions of Lebanon's citizens may starve if the government fails to provide food assistance to families, Human Rights Watch warned on Wednesday.

Lebanon in mid-March ordered residents to stay at home and suspended all non-essential until further notice, to halt the spread of covid-19, which has officially infected 575 people and killed 19 nationwide.

Before the pandemic erupted, Lebanon was struggling with its worst economic crisis in decades, with 45 percent of the population facing poverty according to official estimates.

The rights group said the lockdown measures had made matters worse. In a statement, HRW warned "millions of Lebanon's residents... at risk of going hungry.”

"The lockdown... has compounded the poverty and economic hardship rampant in Lebanon before the virus arrived," said HRW senior researcher Lena Simet.

"Many people who had an income have lost it, and if the government does not step in, more than half the population may not be able to afford food and basic necessities."

Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian later on Wednesday held a press conference announcing an aid program for vulnerable families amid the economic crisis coupled with the virus lockdown. 

Those in need of assistance can call their regional authorities – municipalities and mukhtars – to register. The data collected will then be sent to Lebanon’s Army, who will be distributing the aid, Kouyoumjian explained.

Koyoumjian did not say the exact amount of aid allocated within this assistance program.

Lebanon is home to 4.5 million people, and also hosts around 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the nine-year war next door, most of whom rely on aid to survive.

The economic crisis saw the closing of hundreds of local restaurants, as well as other businesses, and left over a 100,000 unemployed, according to reports.

Nearing the end of last year, months before the threat of the covid-19 pandemic was declared, the World Bank estimated that the percentage of Lebanon's population below the poverty line would rise from 30 to 50 percent.

The coronavirus lockdown further forced businesses to let go of employees, or put them on indefinite unpaid leave. 

HRW Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said many families are struggling due to a lack of savings.

The government had previously said it will pay out 400,000 Lebanese pounds (less than $150 at the market rate) to the most vulnerable, that were already in the registries. 

HRW said the government should also consider suspending rent and mortgage payments throughout the lockdown.

Majzoub said Syrian refugees were also affected.

"Many of them were seasonal workers -- they worked in agriculture, they worked in the service industry -- and they're not able to do that anymore," she said.

Read more: Self-immolation of Syrian man shows the financial impact coronavirus measures have caused refugees in Lebanon

But their ability to cope will depend largely on international aid, as before the pandemic.

The World Bank last week said it had re-allocated $40 million from its support to Lebanon's health sector to fight the virus, including for tests and ventilators.

And it has also been discussing "assistance to help mitigate the impact of the economic and financial crisis on the poor through emergency social safety nets", World Bank spokeswoman Zeina El-Khalil told AFP in March.

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