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Beirut Streets Get Caught between Poverty, Epidemic

Beirut Streets Get Caught between Poverty, Epidemic

Friday, 29 May, 2020 - 11:00
A street vendor pushes his cart in Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, wearing a face mask to try to protect against the spread of COVID-19, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon, March 30, 2020. (Reuters)
Beirut - Hussam Itani

Dozens of young men and children gather near a small entrance to the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, where they chat and play, while a tuk-tuk vehicle, flying a small Palestinian flag, heads to the main road, with a number of boys and girls on it chanting a famous song.

Members of the Lebanese army at the two checkpoints, located near the camp and at the entrance to the southern suburb, do not show any reaction to the sight of the tuk-tuk crossing between them.

In the inner roads of Haret Hreik and Burj al-Barajneh, life seems to be normal, with only few people wearing face masks. Motorcycles race between cars to pass through narrow streets, while the celebration of religious and social occasions have never stopped.

Similar scenes are seen in Burj Hammoud, the Armenian majority district connected to Beirut. Most shops opened their doors to customers as in normal days.

The activity is not limited to food stores and restaurants. Apparently, apparel shops, mobile phones and auto parts are operating at their usual pace.

But as you walk further towards central Beirut, you find silence prevailing over empty streets, closed shops and banks protected with metal shields for fear of angry depositors, who have seen their money evaporate under strict financial restrictions.

Emptiness in the commercial center is suddenly struck with the sight of a large crowd in a luxury restaurant located between Bab Idriss and Wadi Abu Jameel. It looks like as if its clients were not affected by poverty and the epidemic, and they are still able to visit these exclusive places, and let their drivers wait for them in their expensive cars.

The heart of Beirut, Hamra Street, was hit with a severe blow. Most of its shops are closed, while its famous cafes are almost empty due to the social distancing measures, on the one hand, and the difficulty of working within the specified hours, on the other.

It is too early - perhaps - to draw economic and social conclusions on the double disaster that struck Lebanon over the past months. The combination of the economic collapse and the political crisis with the spread of the coronavirus disease leaves a very harsh impression on those who are used to wandering the streets of the capital and its suburbs on less miserable days.

However, a rapid assessment of the above observations predicts the image of the next phase. In other words, the sectors that marked the economy - but rather society, politics and culture - will fall in a kind of clinical death. The banking sector has lost its most important component: confidence. This will not be recovered without major efforts that no one seems to be heading towards.

Tourism, which has been dying for years, is practically ruined. Tourism institutions, even those that have endured the risks and destruction of the civil war, announce their final closure. The same applies, even to a lesser extent, to education and hospital establishments, and durable and consumer goods stores.

Confronted with poverty and the epidemic, the Lebanese stand unable to protest and reject, after they exhausted the peaceful means of objection while the country’s politicians and decision-makers have not batted an eye and seem to be living on a different planet.

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