An empty Hamra Street during the COVID-19 lockdown in Lebanon (Photo: Tariq Keblaoui) | Health pandemic in Lebanon
An empty Hamra Street during the COVID-19 lockdown in Lebanon (Photo: Tariq Keblaoui)

How much longer can Lebanon pull through an economic and health pandemic?

This question has recently been the center of a heated discussion in Western media outlets as they grapple with the economic, social and cultural fallout from COVID-19. A lot of these discussions have been sparked by the cost of the lockdown on economies worldwide. Grappling with the costs of a prolonged lockdown on world economies, a number of economists and politicians have come out to ponder whether a trade-off should be considered, if we were to mitigate the effects of the pandemic as it sends the global economy into freefall.

In effect, it means that countries must confront the tough question of weighing the hefty cost of complete shutdowns against the benefits of saving lives. These tough conversations are taking place in the world’s richest economies, as they calculate the impact of complete shutdowns on their state budgets, economic growth and GDPs. 

Putting a price tag on human lives is without a shadow of a doubt brutal, but so is laying off scores of the population, driving economies into recession, breaking down social ties and driving people into isolation risking not only their economic but also their psychosocial well-being.

As social distancing and other protective measures come into effect, mental health problems and a harrowing surge in domestic violence linked to lockdowns imposed by governments have been echoed by UN chief António Guterres.

”Peace is not just the absence of war,” he tweeted. “Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes.” 

Whether the economic costs are outweighed by the benefits of shutdown is a discussion that must be seriously confronted. While some economists argue that it’s a false choice to be made, it nevertheless needs to be taking place no matter how hard the conversation is.

Like COVID-19, An Economic Shutdown Puts Those Living In Poverty At Risk

The rationale behind keeping the economy in shutdown is that opening up the economy now would put more lives at risk and undermine people’s confidence in the state as it would reverse the gains made thus far, jeopardizing its efforts to contain it.

The pandemic kills people, but so does poverty and economic recession –in addition to underfunded and an overwhelmed health system.

The vulnerable, poor and those with little savings to fall back on are going to be the most affected. The sad truth is that if they survive the pandemic, they won’t be spared the repercussions of an indefinite economic shutdown. 

Younger generations are projected to be the ones to shoulder the burden of economic recovery once the virus is contained and whose efforts will play the most part in a post-epidemic phase. How does the benefit of a shutdown weigh against its cost on a human life when poor and vulnerable families will stand to suffer the most? Employees losing their jobs will also lose their ability to safeguard their children, who are put in harm’s way because of both the  risk of eviction and their susceptibility to abuse and exploitation –to name just a few.

Lebanon’s economy has been ailing long before the coronavirus outbreak, a result of years of political turmoil and economic mismanagement. The country witnessed a revolution at the end of 2019 to spell out its anger and discontent against the establishment.

The country’s debt to GDP is one of the highest in the world and stands at 152 percent. Corruption is entrenched within the system reaching into every corner of the state. It ranks 137th among 180 countries worldwide. It is perceived as having the same corruption levels as Russia, Kenya and Uganda, surpassing corruption levels in countries such as Mexico, Laos, Togo and Ukraine.

In March of this year, Lebanon announced it would default on its international debt failing to pay $1.2 billion Eurobond payment as a result of an unprecedented financial crisis. On top of that the coronavirus comes along sending the country into disarray.

A country like Lebanon, third most indebted country in the world, cannot afford the millions of dollars worth of aid packages that we are seeing elsewhere in the world, nor does not have the luxury to overlook a potential tradeoff with the possibility of fending off an imminent demise of the economy, already on the brink of collapse. 

Richer countries have the luxury of economic aid packages

In a country like the US, a record of more than 6.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in one week alone marking a period of highest unemployment claims in US history. A relief package was approved last week with expanded unemployment benefits to pull the country through its worst unemployment crisis. In this case the issue is not of money but the capacity to allocate the resources and to accommodate these huge numbers all at once. Given the luxury of choice and backed up by a welfare state, people would not be making the stark choice between having to lose a job or lose a life. They know there’s a solid social welfare system that looks after them. 

In developed countries, people can afford to stay out of work for months on end. The US aid package has, in response to the coronavirus, increased unemployment benefits from its previous levels so that those laid off would be discouraged to look for a new job or having to leave their homes and thus lowering the risk of infecting others as they continue to abide by social distancing and lockdown guidelines.

Secondly, big businesses were bailed out and small ones were given loans that would be turned into grants if they keep their employees on their payroll –a measure that was also used in other European countries as an incentive for keeping companies afloat and saving them the time to look for other workers once the economy is back on track. It would also save the state the unemployment benefits it would need to pay for the millions of laid off employees in an economy sinking into the abyss.

Citizens of a number of countries, of which there are many, won’t have the urgency that a citizen of the same age group, gender, social background, job or class would have in a third world county. The first will have to worry about getting their claim through an overwhelmed system, but it’s a matter of time until someone knocks on their door or a check comes their way. Whereas, for the other person, losing a job might cost them their entire lives. They might lose their home and their ability to feed their family, pay their bills or send their kids to school.

An indebted government means political parties can cement coronavirus clientelism

Lebanon is hanging off a cliff, a tradeoff seems inevitable in the long-run. It is a tough conversation to be had where the state has crippled to the point of being unable to return thousands of stranded immigrants abroad, right until last weekend when several flights carrying Lebanese began to arrive.

Political parties were also quick to act as they jumped in to seize the moment and take up the mantle of the state. Exploiting a national emergency for political gains is nothing new for sectarian parties to take advantage of a frail state so as to reinforce an inter-dependency between traditional long-standing parties vis-à-vis its voter. A number of aid packages have been distributed across Lebanon by politicians and established parties from all sides to cement political clientelism in times of uncertainty and fear.

This is the very same notion that the October 17 revolution fought against.

People were disillusioned with all the political parties and so they took to the streets to fight against sectarianism, rampant corruption and a dwindling state of the economy. They were disenchanted with their political parties as they raged against their exploitative ways of buying their way into public office, only to plunder the nation’s resources and public funds. Yet, these parties unite in times of fear to manipulate the status-quo to their advantage and to recreate a reality closer to the one prior the revolution, which has indeed shaken off some of the glory and awe that were for long built around them.

Read also: How Lebanon’s economy came crashing

In a state that prides itself on being “technocratic,” it is perhaps breathing a sigh of relief that traditional sectarian parties are stepping in where it cannot in order to fill the void left by years and years of economic plunder and political ineptitude. The equation is simple, how much would each individual or household cost the state in a crumbling economy versus how many lives would be lost if the economy were to remain active.

While it seems like a false choice for developed countries, the question then remains how could poor or developing countries sustain their economies until this dark cloud had passed.

Should they bear the brunt of this alone? Or do more well-off countries have an obligation, as poorer countries adhere by the WHO recommendation despite devastating economic impact, to stand by them in the provision of aid? In that regard, some leaders have come together to urge the rich G20 nations to tackle health and economic crises that are sparked by the pandemic.

Lebanon’s needs to implement reforms to win back the international community

Some 165 leaders have called for an $8bn emergency fund to tackle the implications that the coronavirus have had on poor economies with weak health systems in place. It remains to be seen whether such efforts would come into fruition or meet the different challenges facing each country.

For instance, Lebanon has a particular situation as it shoulders around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, close to a quarter of its population and the largest intake per capita in the world who are also at a grave risk of infection due to poor living conditions and lack of resources. This makes this proposal ever more urgent. However, absent a functioning state and proper mechanisms of monitoring and evaluation, we run the risk of being deprived of the funds should richer countries decide to pick up the tab with us.

Now more than ever, the government needs to enact recommended political and economic reforms as a show of moral and ethical responsibility, so as to win back the confidence of the international community in a state long marred by corruption and lack of accountability.

Lessons must be learned from past experiences as the failure to enact much needed reforms has led us to losing $11bn in aid pledged by international donors at Cedre Conference in Paris, which was conditioned upon enacting meaningful reforms because of the international community’s doubt in the seriousness of the pledges made by Lebanon then. 

Putting a price tag on human lives is far from humane, but so does pushing people to the brink of poverty and stripping them of their means for survival. If asked between surviving an epidemic or risking human dignity and that of one’s children, family and loved ones, the answer might come as a shock. In the end, Life is not only measured by the scale of a beating heart. So many lives are long lost without skipping a beat.