Lebanese workers thrust into poverty, depression amid COVID-19 lockdown
Lebanon has extended its all-day lockdown until February to curb the spread of coronavirus. The lockdown, in place for nearly a month by February 8, is hitting daily wage and informal workers hard, who find themselves without resources and walking a fine line between life and death.
As COVID-19 cases spiraled out of control in Lebanon, the government enforced a lockdown from January 14 to 23. With daily infection rates remaining exceptionally high and COVID-19 death tolls spiking, the government decided to expand the total confinement for two more weeks until February 8.
“The impact of the lockdown has been brutal on daily wage and informal workers because of their already fragile situation. In Lebanon, 55 percent of the population is comprised of daily wage and informal workers with no social protection or regular contracts. If they do not work, they don’t earn any money. They have thus lost all source of income with the current lockdown,” said sociologist Dr Adib Nehme.
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Mona Saad, head of the Maarouf Saad Social and Cultural Foundation concurred, adding that the government had no plan in place to bring relief aid to daily wage workers, such as artisans, taxi drivers, waiters, sailors and others, during lockdown.
“Unlike other governments, the Lebanese government maintains a reactionary approach to the COVID situation and no long-term plan,” she said.
In the last few weeks, Lebanon has averaged 5,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, with deaths rising between 40-60 every day. The situation is no better in the country’s intensive care units, where the occupancy rate is close to saturation at 90 percent in most of the country and 100 percent in Beirut, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In 2020 poverty among Lebanese had increased to 55 percent from 28 percent in 2018, while extreme poverty had tripled to 23 percent from 8 percent, according to UNICEF. For Syrian refugees, 91 percent of households were now living under the poverty line and 88 percent living in extreme poverty.
Charbel a taxi driver said he hadn’t worked in over two weeks. “I can barely make ends meet. I used to be a mechanic, now I work as a taxi driver to sustain my family. With the lockdown I can’t provide anymore for them and rely on my in-laws for help,” he underlined.
Competition for work was so high in recent weeks that a brawl between taxi drivers erupted last week at the Beirut airport over who would shuttle incoming travelers to their hotels.
The situation is compounded for daily wage workers in Palestinian camps. Oussama Oueity works as a painter. He makes less than $6 on a good day, which allows him to feed his family with some bread, rice and lentils, as well as buy medication for his son who suffers from a heart condition. With the lockdown, his family now sticks to a strict regimen of bread and rice. “I still give thanks to God that some of my clients and Fatah, the Palestinian organization give me a stipend that allows us to survive,” he points out.
Inflation had already soared to 133 percent by October last year, with prices set to rise even further this year. Along with a crushing currency devaluation, the impact of these crisis will further increase the risk of more households falling into poverty.
“If the lockdown continues for one or two more months, I will have to close my hair salon. The Lebanese pound devaluation combined with the COVID crisis has made our situation untenable. Unlike other countries, the Lebanese state has done nothing to support daily wage workers or small businesses during the lockdown,” said hairdresser David Checherian.
Additionally, financial problems combined with the lockdown are putting pressure on people’s mental health. Thousands of Lebanese are suffering from extreme depression and looking for dangerous solutions to the economic depression, Nehme explained.
“People are facing a slow death, they are resorting to increasing violence and this will eventually threaten the fabric of the country’s social security,” Saad added.
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