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Lebanon crisis

Getting through Lebanon’s COVID-19 lockdown amid a digital divide

Published: Updated:

Grocery stores in Lebanon reopened for in-store customers this week, after the end of a mandatory delivery-only services that had been in place for three weeks. It’s part of the government’s four-stage plan to ease strict lockdown measures.

Consumers shopping in supermarkets must abide by safety regulations and seek a permit from the “Impact” digital platform before visiting the store.

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Citizens willing to go to supermarkets must file a request. Once they receive approval, they need to scan a QR code upon entering, and leaving the designated location.

Residents must have internet access to register.

The patchwork system used for this, and receiving QR codes has left many of the city’s older residents stranded, along with low-income residents who face digital barriers. People who are better equipped to navigate the system get their codes easily.

A police officer wearing a face mask talks with a driver at a checkpoint in Beirut, Jan. 15, 2021. (Reuters)
A police officer wearing a face mask talks with a driver at a checkpoint in Beirut, Jan. 15, 2021. (Reuters)

“The Lebanese government has been implementing, for almost a year now, many procedures to counter the spread of COVID-19, most of which, such as mandatory online learning and filling online forms to go out during lockdown, have amplified the digital divide between Lebanon’s residents,” Christy-Belle Geha, Lebanese citizen told Al Arabiya English.

Supermarkets in Lebanon are now allowed to open until after midnight, while previous lockdowns saw opening hours limited to just 12 hours a day, which often led to overcrowding.

Confusion about the QR codes system is causing wider problems, with reports of crowded supermarket entrances blocked as people navigate around the requested QR code. Videos of people not understanding the governmental platform, are posted on the internet.

An elderly man uses a stick to walk, during a lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease in Beirut, Feb. 3, 2021. (Reuters)
An elderly man uses a stick to walk, during a lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease in Beirut, Feb. 3, 2021. (Reuters)

This comes as Lebanon remains in a protracted state of transition to digitization, exacerbated by the unstable political climate.

Lebanon ranked 60th on the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) world ranking of internet quality among 100 countries. The study assessed four major aspects of quality internet; availability, affordability, relevance, and readiness.

Lebanon suffered mostly when it came to that last ranking, as the EIU report states that “weak policy development does much to constrain Lebanon’s ability to support Internet inclusion.”

Lebanon also launched a pre-registration website for the coronavirus vaccine last month, to allow people to queue in a ‘virtual line’ for inoculation. The government provided a hotline for the elderly to get help when registering. Residents can do this manually if they are facing any challenges.

Many organizations are reaching out to the poorest, oldest and the incapacitated to let them know about the vaccine, and help them register.

Community-level providers, including NGOs have stepped in to help the elderly register for the vaccine.

The Development Committee, an NGO in north Lebanon's Batroun, is helping senior citizens within its district to ensure the city’s most vulnerable citizens get the vaccine, if they want.

“There has been confusion over when, where, and how to get the shot, with different jurisdictions taking different approaches in the nation’s patchwork, decentralized public health system,” Joseph Abi Fadel, a member of the Development Committee, told Al Arabiya English.

“While many people have lost their lives, we aim at having no forgotten groups of people when it comes to vaccinations, especially the very people who need help the most.”

The organization is working closely with the municipality to gather data and citizens’ information.

Lebanese vaccination centers started preparing the Ultra-Low Temperature (ULT) freezers at their labs to receive the Pfizer vaccine at a temperature -80°C for the vaccination campaign that begins on Sunday.

Health workers take swab samples from passengers who arrived at Beirut international airport, July 1, 2020. (Reuters)
Health workers take swab samples from passengers who arrived at Beirut international airport, July 1, 2020. (Reuters)

“The Pfizer vaccine is thermosensitive and demands special storage conditions. Our ULT freezers are being inspected by an external auditor from the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon and UNICEF Lebanon, our staff have undergone special training by Pfizer representatives. RHUH will be up to the challenge,” Firas Abiad, head of Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital said in a tweet.

With the use of the technology welcomed in the country, concerns remain over accessibility.

“The government’s stated commitment to an inclusive vaccination strategy is positive, but the real test will be translating the plan into action,” a Local researcher at the Human Rights Watch, Aya Majzoub said in a report about gaps in Lebanon’s vaccine program planning.

“It is critical for leaders to clearly communicate the government’s vaccination strategy, ensure that vaccine access is not determined by political connections or socioeconomic status, and apply transparent, evidence-based distribution criteria equally to everyone in Lebanon.”

Read more:

Total of 100,000 people killed by COVID-19 in Middle East: AFP

Health officials call on Lebanese to register for vaccination amid low turnout