The coronavirus outbreak proves Lebanon’s Diab cabinet has no idea how to govern
No need to panic! Words repeated by the Lebanese Minister of Public Health Hamad Hasan three weeks ago when he first announced that Lebanon had identified its first case of the notorious coronavirus, technically known as COVID-19. Hamad’s assurances soon proved fallacious, as the coronavirus continued to spread across the country with no clear plan of action being deployed by the government of Hassan Diab to try to limit its spread. Alarmingly the Lebanese government dragged its feet and took no immediate action by stopping flights from Iran and Italy, the two countries that were initially identified as the source of the infected cases Lebanon was treating.
Faced with perhaps the worst calamity since the great famine of 1915, the Lebanese ruling establishment opted to do all the wrong things. Rather than deploying a national emergency plan that would scientifically manage the crisis, the cabinet of Premier Hassan Diab stuck to its sectarian operating system and preferred to take a step back and simply “act” responsible, keyword here is act. Diab and his so-called technocratic government formed a ministerial crisis cell as such situations dictate, but unfortunately most of its decisions were reactive rather than preemptive and proactive to protect the lives of the Lebanese as well as the one million Syrian refugees currently calling Lebanon home.
Banning flights to and from Iran should have been one of the first things that Diab’s cabinet enforced regardless of the political implications of such a decision and the reaction of Hezbollah which simply cannot afford to sever its only remaining lifeline through which it receives weapons and more importantly dollars. Despite the popular outcry demanding that severe measures be implemented on flights from Iran, flocks of Iranians and Lebanese returnees kept entering Lebanon through the airport and through Syria with no serious testing or screening being conducted.
The fact that Hezbollah was in control of the Ministry of Public Health and its areas are beyond the scrutiny of the Lebanese state further heightened the public belief that the coronavirus had already infested the Shia community, thus leading to their further isolation. News that Hezbollah was using one of its biggest hospitals, Al-Rassoul Al-Azam, as a secret quarantine facility led to further panic in the ranks of the Lebanese who saw their state unresponsive to any of these dangerous allegations.
Diab’s apprehensive approach also extended to the other religious communities as each respective community was left to issue instructions to their places of worship and congregation venues, sites which have the highest risk of transmission. Lacking grassroots legitimacy, Diab could not afford to cross any of his patrons and stepped back from declaring a state of national emergency, centralizing the decision-making process and locking down the country.
Such harsh and radical measures were the only chance that the Lebanese had to contain the spread of this plague. This government has made a habit of issuing directives and orders to the different entities including the municipalities, under the mistaken assumption that these bodies have the capabilities as well as the resources to carry them out. Contrary to what the Diab cabinet and its many advisors claim, the coronavirus outbreak confirmed their total lack of knowledge of how the state works. Moreover, having defaulted on its sovereign debt almost a week before, this government lacks the financial resources to confront the coronavirus as it spread through the country, especially given that nearly all of Lebanon’s hospitals were suffering from a lack of medical supplies including spare parts for the much needed ventilators even before the outbreak.
Another dangerous aspect which the Diab government has shown deliberate laxity in facing is the Syrian refugees whose unsanitary conditions in camps and high-density areas is inducive to the spread of the virus. While the UNHCR and some government agencies have scrambled to face this challenge, Diab and his xenophobic allies are unconcerned with the risk and brush it away as inconsequential.
In the final analysis, the ruling establishment fronted by the Hassan Diab and many other cabinets before it have repeatedly asked people not to panic when there banking sector was collapsing, or when the forest fires were threatening to devour their homes.
However, the Lebanese who are aware of the moral shortcomings of their leaders have taken the initiative to self-quarantine and to lockdown the country to save their souls. Perhaps more importantly, the coronavirus challenge proved once more, at least in the case of the Diab cabinet, that technocracy and statesmanship do not necessarily go together. Diab may be a technocrat, but he is also morally unfit to govern.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His forthcoming book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.