Not getting paid: Lebanese politicians donate salaries to coronavirus fight

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As Lebanon gets accustomed to living under near-total lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, several politicians have pledged to donate their salaries to the fight against the disease.

On Sunday night, Lebanon’s Cabinet announced a series of stringent measures to combat the coronavirus, closing borders, ordering public and private businesses to shut down, and calling on citizens to avoid leaving their homes.

Since the declaration of a “state of health emergency,” more than 20 MPs and ministers have said that they would hand over their March salaries to those on the front lines of combating the virus, including public hospitals, the Lebanese Red Cross, or the “National Corona Defense Fund” set up by Health Minister Hamad Hasan.

Over the last week or so, a social media campaign had been calling for public officials to donate their salaries under the hashtag #YouWontGetPaid.

Rola Tabsh, an MP with former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, announced on Twitter that she was donating her March salary to Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the government hospital chosen as the hub for testing and treating coronavirus patients.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English Monday, Tabsh described the donations as an “initiative to encourage all people to help during this exceptional time.”

“While this is not our role - it is the role of the government - we all have to come together to survive.”

On Monday, the Health Ministry announced the number of cases in Lebanon had reached 109. Three people have died so far, while one patient has made a full recovery.

The arrival of the coronavirus, technically known as COVID-19, could hardly have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which was already struggling with its worst economic crisis in decades. Jobs have been cut, the local currency has lost more than 40 percent of its value and nationwide dollar shortages have threatened essential imports, including medical supplies.

Medical workers have for months been warning of the existential threat faced by the healthcare sector, as a lack of government investment has been compounded by the increasingly limited access to equipment and medicine.

The Lebanese Red Cross, which is staffed by volunteer medics and reliant on donations, has also ramped up calls for financial support amid the outbreak, as each “coronavirus mission” costs the organization more than $850.

Yassine Jaber, a veteran MP with the Amal Movement who donated his salary to the Nabatieh Governmental Hospital, admitted that donations from MPs’ salaries would unlikely have any significant impact on the fight against the coronavirus.

MPs receive a monthly salary of just over LL10 million, including benefits.

“Our salaries alone are not going to save the country,” he told Al Arabiya English, “these problems are inherited from successive governments.”

The 2020 state budget has slashed healthcare expenditure by 7 percent compared to 2019, and hospitals in Lebanon are owed some $1.3 billion by the state, according to the head of the private hospitals’ syndicate, with dues dating back as far as 2011.

The Rafik Hariri University Hospital remains the only public hospital equipped to test and treat coronavirus patients, and at present only has around 140 beds available. However, as the number of cases rises, so will the strain on the healthcare system.

To cope with the increasing demand, the health minister announced last week that eight additional hospitals were being prepared to accept coronavirus patients, with the help of a World Bank loan of $39 million.

However, according to the head of Parliament’s health committee, Assem Araji, those hospitals will only provide a total of around 300 additional beds, leaving Rafik Hariri University Hospital to bear the burden of coronavirus care.

Just last week, staff at Lebanon’s largest public hospital went on strike to decry months of unpaid salaries and poor working conditions.

One senior hospital employee, who spoke to Al Arabiya English on condition of anonymity, said that while they were “grateful” for the politicians’ offers of support, the public donation campaign has come too little, too late.

“They should have taken legislative measures before to support the [healthcare system] and the employees who are working all day and night.”

“[The politicians] can’t just sweep in now and show themselves as heroes.”