Context of the Crisis
The COVID-19 outbreak in Lebanon came as the country was already in the midst of a crippling socio-economic crisis, with total collapse looming on the horizon. Lockdown and other measures further exacerbated existing difficulties. The dual impact of pressure on the Lebanese Pound (LBP), as well as reduced imports (at increased prices), has led to inflation with prices skyrocketing at a time when many people are losing their jobs or being paid at reduced wages. The value of the LBP against the US Dollar has dropped by an estimated 350 per cent in the unofficial exchange as at end June.
Lebanon applied wide-reaching lockdown measures since the Cabinet announced a “general mobilization” on 15 March, now in place until 2 August, to curb the spread of the virus. After nearly four months of closure, Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport re-opened on 1 July for commercial flights, with 10 per cent of air traffic capacity in comparison to a year ago (2,000 passengers per day). With a spike in the number of cases recorded early July, one-third of which are identified as individuals who newly returned to Lebanon, there is increasing concern among the population that the possible end of general mobilization and opening of airport might lead to further increase in the number of clusters of cases and an overwhelming of the existing health system capacity.
Like in other parts of the world, the disease outbreak has put extra pressure on an already overburdened and under-resourced national health system. Despite the available medical human resources, the health system in Lebanon was already facing structural challenges, including around the import of medicine and equipment. As importantly, a significant decrease in the number of patients’ visits in primary health care centres was reported between February and April, and the number of children vaccinated in primary health care centres and dispensaries almost halved, despite primary health care centres having maintained activities.
Beyond the health impact of the disease outbreak, the non-health consequences will be deeper and longer lasting, requiring a collective and whole-of-system approach. In January 2020, and due to the on-going fi nancial and economic crisis, poverty levels were already projected to reach 52 per cent, with a doubling of extreme (food) poverty from 10 percent to 20 percent in 2020. The price of the food component of the survival minimum expenditure basket (SMEB) has increased by 109 per cent between September 2019 and May 2020, with the highest increase recorded between April and May 2020.
The pandemic has further underscored pre-existing poor housing conditions of a large majority of both refugee and host populations living predominantly in urban dense settings, some inadequate and characterized by poor building conditions, lack of tenure security, overcrowding, lack of access to basic urban services or water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. At least half of the population is living in informality: UN-Habitat estimates that the ‘slum’ to urban population in Lebanon was around 50 per cent in the year 2001. This situation has been exacerbated by internal and external migration and population movements, thus threats to housing tenure are more likely found in informal areas. In the face of this pandemic, the lack of adequate housing has repercussions on society as a whole and is a direct threat to everyone’s health and safety. Ensuring secure housing for all and the provision of essential services are crucial components of national efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic and prevent the loss of life.