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Lebanon, in Virus Lockdown, to Allow Expats to Come Home, Tunisia Frees Prisoners

Lebanon, in Virus Lockdown, to Allow Expats to Come Home, Tunisia Frees Prisoners

Tuesday, 31 March, 2020 - 17:15
A volunteer sanitizes a mosque, as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, in Sidon, Lebanon March 12, 2020. (Reuters)

Lebanon’s government agreed a procedure on Tuesday to allow citizens abroad to come back despite a coronavirus lockdown after its expat policy drew criticism from political leaders.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri had threatened to withdraw support for the cabinet if it did not act to bring home Lebanese stranded abroad during the pandemic.

Beirut airport has been closed to flights for two weeks as part of efforts to limit transmissions of the virus, which has so far infected 463 people with 12 deaths. The government has ordered a shutdown and an overnight curfew until April 12 in a country where dollar shortages had drained the healthcare system of critical supplies months before the outbreak.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose government was already grappling with a severe financial crisis before the virus hit, pledged strict measures to ensure safe returns of expatriates, his office said on Tuesday after a cabinet session.

“We cannot bear any faltering step, and none of the political forces can bear having on its conscience the spread of the (virus) and the collapse of the health system,” Diab said.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said returns would start on Sunday and all passengers would be screened before they board flights to Lebanon. She said cabinet may make changes to the procedure for returns in a session on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti told local broadcaster al-Jadeed earlier on Tuesday that based on an initial tally from embassies, some 20,000 Lebanese may want to return home.

With the world’s big cities in lockdown, Lebanese overseas have faced complications due to curbs by Lebanon’s banks which have blocked transfers abroad in recent months and severely limited cash withdrawals from ATMs.

Lebanon’s banking association said on Sunday that the lenders were “committed to transferring the appropriate sums for Lebanese students living abroad.”

Other leaders have also echoed Berri’s call for returning expats, including Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

Most of Lebanon’s main politicians have close ties to the country’s large diaspora communities from which they draw support.

Tunisia releases prisoners

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Tuesday ordered the release of 1,420 prisoners in an amnesty to combat the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, a presidency statement said.

Tunisia has declared a general lockdown to slow infection rates, and has confirmed 362 cases of the coronavirus, with nine deaths.

The government said in a separate statement that it would provide food assistance to thousands of families in their homes, starting Friday, for a period of about two months.

Saied last week ordered the army to deploy in the streets to force people to respect the lockdown.

UN delivers aid in Gaza

A UN aid agency Tuesday began delivering food to the homes of impoverished Palestinians instead of making them pick up such parcels at crowded distribution centers — part of an attempt to prevent a mass outbreak of the new coronavirus in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees has for decades provided staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of the territory's 2 million people. Under the old system, those eligible lined up at crowded distribution centers four times a year to pick up their aid parcels. Starting on Tuesday, the agency began making home deliveries.

"We assessed that tens of thousands of people will pour into the food distribution centers and this is very dangerous,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, the agency's spokesman in Gaza.

Some 4,000 deliveries were made Tuesday, with an estimated 70,000 others to be made over the next three weeks, he said.

Drivers on three-wheel motorcycles dropped off the food, calling people out of their homes, confirming their identities and leaving the bags outside. The agency instructed people to stay 2 meters from the delivery men to minimize the risk of infection.

“This makes it easy for us,” said Manal Ziara, a resident of Shati refugee camp in west Gaza City. “The old mechanism causes crowding and touching that help the virus spread."

Only 10 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Gaza, whose borders have been largely sealed by Israel since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

However, there's only a small number of available tests. International officials fear the virus could quickly spread and overwhelm an already gutted health system.

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