Lebanon protesters defy coronavirus lockdown, take to streets

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Dozens of Lebanese people took to the streets Sunday night to protest the government’s measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, which they said would push the country’s most vulnerable communities deeper into poverty.

Spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern city of Tripoli as protesters decried the lockdown that has been in force for more than two weeks to curb the COVID-19 outbreak.

As of Monday, there are 446 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Lebanon, according to the Health Ministry. Eleven people have died.

Read more: Coronavirus puts spotlight on Lebanon’s ailing public healthcare system

On Thursday, the government once again ramped up its measures to contain the disease by announcing a daily curfew between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m., which requires all shops and businesses, with a few exceptions, to close down.

Living day-to-day

For families who rely on the daily income generated by their small businesses, this measure is set to compound existing struggles to make ends meet. According to a 2019 International Labour Organization survey, informal workers make up around 55 percent of Lebanon’s workforce.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, 57 percent of the population are classified to be “poor and deprived” according to a 2015 UNDP study.

Read more: Lebanon’s financial crisis forces Tripoli traders to shut up shop

Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades, which came to a head this year and led to tens of thousands of job losses, is likely to see this figure rise further.

On Sunday night, protesters toured Tripoli’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Jabal Mohsen and al-Qobbeh under the slogans “Feed us, don’t quarantine us” and “Dying from coronavirus is better than starving to death.”

Images had circulated on social media over the weekend showing Tripoli’s traditional souks crowded with people, despite government orders for people to remain inside, as merchants continued to try and earn whatever money they could.

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, dozens of young men rode around on motorbikes and blocked roads to reject the restrictions on movement that are set to be in place until April 12.

“We want to eat, we want to live,” they chanted.

Lebanon’s Cabinet announced Thursday that it approved a 75 billion Lebanese lira ($49.5 million) loan to the Higher Relief Council, an aid body, to provide food aid and social assistance to the country’s poorest, but has not yet set out how these funds will be allocated.

Protest tents removed

On Friday night, security forces forcibly removed dozens of tents in Downtown Beirut that had become a permanent fixture of the city since the outbreak of mass protests in October.

Read more: How Lebanon’s dollar shortage sparked an economic crisis

Hady Ezzeddine, a protester who had been camping in Martyrs’ Square downtown, told Al Arabiya English that police officers refused to tell protesters why they were being evicted.

“They told us they just have orders,” Ezzeddine said.

A handful of protesters were arrested and later released for attempting to prevent the tents’ removal and burning tires across the main road leading to the square.

Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi said in a televised interview the following day that the removal of the encampment was due to “increasing trespassing and attacks on private property.”

However, many protesters accused the government of using coronavirus measures as a cover to remove the final remnants of the mass uprising against the ruling class.

“But it’s ok, nothing is over yet,” Ezzeddine said. “The protests are still alive."

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