Beirut under quarantine: Why decades of unshackled neoliberalism left Lebanon in extreme danger from coronavirus

Beirut under quarantine: Why decades of unshackled neoliberalism left Lebanon in extreme danger from coronavirus
Comment: With no safety net, and privatised, corrupt interests running basic services, Lebanon is woefully under-prepared to respond to coronavirus, writes Carmen Geha.
5 min read
16 Mar, 2020
Lebanon has so far recorded at least 109 cases and three deaths [AFP]

Last week I wrote about International Women's Day in Beirut, and about how nothing was going to stop us from marching for our rights.

I was wrong.

Unlike other threats we regularly face here - like violence and state oppression - the outbreak of the coronavirus was indeed able to stop us from physically marching as a collective. Like in many other places, events rapidly evolved, and within a few days we realised we were facing a pandemic.

The outbreak of coronavirus is as much an existential threat and awakening, as it is a medical threat. The international racist, capitalist, and sexist system needs to be called into questioning. And from where I stand (or sit) in my room in the Lebanese capital, I feel as though my tiny country highlights the worst of all global trends, and perhaps can stand to gain the most from a revolutionary awakening - if we survive, of course.

Neoliberal capitalism

The spread of the virus, and the country's response, highlights the inadequacy of Lebanon's post-war economic and reconstruction policies. Following the end of the war in  1990, successive governments basically stripped lower and middle classes of any power of production, and eliminated what was left of an independent union movement.

Governmental regulations and policies were aimed towards privatisation of income generating sectors like telecom and electricity. As a result, we pay the highest phone bills in the world and still don't have 24 hour electricity. Gentrification and urbanisation pushed the working class into slums across the nation and built expensive towers for wealthy foreigners, mainly from the Gulf.

Three decades later we have no local production, rampant corruption, and a hollow health sector. We have no social safety nets. Politicians stole and divided among them the spoils of the national social security funds. Education, water, sanitation, transportation, and health are all privatised. This means we are not only ill-equipped to face the pandemic, we will not be able to track it, or attend to it.

Three decades later we have no local production, rampant corruption, and a hollow health sector

Bad policymaking on refugees

Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. While you may think that this would have prompted governments to take action and develop roadmaps, we have effectively done nothing to address the needs of the roughly 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon since 2012, and some 400,000 Palestinians since 1948.

In reality, though, we do not have exact numbers. After the Syrian refugee crisis, our genius government asked the UNHCR to stop registering Syrians. Not only do we not have accurate numbers, but we also treat refugees as a monolithic entity. We do not know their nuanced needs, how many men or women, how many can or cannot go back to Syria, and what their aspirations and fears are.

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We carved out policy responses based on political bickering and populist hate towards refugees. And now? They live in informal settlements where hundreds of thousands of people huddle in bad weather and bad sanitation. We are not only unable to cater to their needs, we also do not have adequate medical facilities for them. 

Racism, migrant workers, crowded prisons

Our very legal kafala (sponsorship) system for migrant workers puts these people - mostly domestic workers - at the mercy of their employers. Violence and murder are reported frequently. Equally horrible is the reality that employers often take away their passports, basically enslaving them behind closed doors.

Prisons are overcrowded with migrant workers who lost their residency permits or are accused of having run away. The justice system is skewed in favour or the rich and powerful, and migrants are often thrown in prison cells without access to a lawyer, or being treated for ill health or signs of torture.

Read more: Lebanon to 'declare state of medical emergency' over coronavirus pandemic

We have carved out employment policies that foster racism and encourage violation of people's basic right to access information, justice, and well-being. In the face of coronavirus, we are not only unable to prevent the spread of virus in prisons, but our infrastructure and daily practices are instead a conducive ecosystem for the spread of disease.

Day by day mode

There are structural challenges everywhere to the system that governs healthcare and employment. Privatisation of the basic functions of government has become the norm that small nations need to live up to.

In my own field of public administration, we hail the almighty "new public management" paradigm that is a monstrous approach to making government small, and passing on its basic functions to private corporations.

It is exactly this, coupled with corruption in the health sector that is the reason that today we not only face a scenario where we do not have enough beds, but we also do not have enough kits to test for the virus.

Our infrastructure and daily practices are instead a conducive ecosystem for the spread of disease

As a nation, we rely on our war-time experience to impose self-quarantine. My parents who lived through the war know exactly what kind of food and medicine to stock up on. They are mentally more equipped to deal with isolation than I am. They are more resourceful and level headed when it comes to dealing with disruption to everyday life.

We are now living day by day, waiting to see who gets sick first, and who dies first.

There are not enough test kits and so quarantine feels more like a destiny than a choice. While Lebanon - like everywhere else - will suffer losses from this virus, we will gain the willpower and solidarity to rebuild from scratch, because truly, that's all that'll be left.

Carmen Geha is a political activist and an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. She specializes in research on social movements and protests, women in politics and refugee policies. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CarmenGeha

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.