Aftermath of the port explosion in August 2020: Attempts by political leaders to have the investigation shut down have only strengthened the belief of many here that what is really needed is an independent international investigation.
Lebanon and COVID-19

Coronavirus lockdown weighs heavy on a country in crisis

Coronavirus, economic crisis and an unresolved explosion: the situation in Lebanon is tense and a new lockdown is only making things worse for a people already suffering trauma and economic devastation. Diana Hodali reports

Nada is exhausted. "I have the feeling that all the weight of the past year is suffocating me," says the young Lebanese woman. A multimedia producer, Nada – who does not want to give her last name - says she has had to work from home for almost a year while at the same time completing her master's degree in marketing and communication.

Those around her know Nada is a "glass half full" kind of person. Though she is trying hard to smile these days, it is clear the current situation is tormenting her: "It's not only that we are in lockdown, our lives are being dictated by the coronavirus. I had so many plans going into last year. We wanted to look for a new apartment. But everything has become impossible. The explosion changed everything."

Slow investigation

Nada is referring to the enormous blast that rocked Beirut on 4 August 2020. It has been six months since the world saw images of a massive cloud rising over the Lebanese capital after a storage warehouse full of ammonium nitrate levelled large swathes of the city.

 For the past year, Nada has been working from home (photo: private)
Forced to sit out the world's strictest lockdown amid a failing economy: "Often supermarkets can only offer us overpriced products, or products nobody wants, because everything else is sold out," says Nada. Yet most people cannot afford such goods – currency devaluations over the past year have led to a tripling of food prices. Human Rights Watch says more than 55% of all Lebanese live in poverty, a figure almost double that of 2019

The explosion killed more than 200 people, injured more than 6,000 and left another 300,000 homeless. The damage was immense and rebuilding has been extremely slow.

NGO Human Rights Watch says that over the six months since, Lebanese authorities have failed to adequately investigate the explosion. So far, very few details have been published regarding the opaque and slow-moving investigation into the cause of the accident.

And despite ample evidence documenting the fact that numerous high-ranking Lebanese politicians and security officials knew of the existence of ammonium nitrate at the storage facilities, to date, none have been held accountable. Though many of the physical wounds suffered by citizens that day may have healed, the trauma of the experience remains and they are looking for justice.

"Nobody here really believes that those responsible will ever be punished," says Nada. Attempts by political leaders to have the investigation shut down have only strengthened the belief of many here that what is really needed is an independent international investigation. Judge Fadi Sawwan, who was appointed to head the investigation, has said his work will remain paused for at least as long as the country is in lockdown.

One of the strictest lockdowns in the world

Lebanon has been under lockdown due to high coronavirus infection rates since mid-January. According to the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, some 310,000 of the country's six million citizens have been infected and more than 3,300 have died. The true numbers in each case are likely higher.

Beirut: No one is allowed out – unless they have permission
Concern about the coronavirus vaccines: "I can't expect anything from this government as long as the same politicians are in charge," says Nada. Lebanon is supposed to receive its first doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in mid-February. "I don't trust them to store them at the required temperatures"

The World Health Organization recently announced that more than 90% of the country's intensive care unit beds are already occupied. Oxygen is also in short supply and lack of capacity has meant that some patients with COVID-19 are being treated in their cars in parking lots outside hospitals.

According to data compiled by Oxford University in England, Lebanon is currently under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. The country is under a 24-hour curfew, with citizens forbidden from going out to work and even to shop for groceries – though many supermarkets now offer delivery services. Those who need to leave the house to deal with emergencies must first attain permission from authorities.

Food running out

The Lebanese Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs has sounded the alarm over food availability in the face of the country's ever-worsening economic crisis and the addition of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. Recently, the Lebanese state news agency NNA quoted a statement from the association declaring that, "together, these factors could reduce food supplies by up to half, leading to shortages."

 

"We're already there," says Nada, "often supermarkets can only offer us overpriced products, or products nobody wants, because everything else is sold out." Most people cannot afford such goods, as the country's economy was already in shambles before the pandemic hit. Currency devaluations over the past year have led to a tripling of food prices and Human Rights Watch says more than 55% of all Lebanese live in poverty – almost double the figure from 2019.

That situation led to rioting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli this week. "People are hungry and they aren't getting any financial assistance from the state," says Shafik Abdelrahman, co-founder of Utopia, a Tripoli-based NGO focused on conflict and social issues.

Tripoli, which is located about 85 kilometres north of Beirut, is the second-largest city in the country, with about 500,000 residents. According to the World Bank, Tripoli is also the poorest city on the entire Mediterranean coast. Nada, too, has wondered if now isn't the time to take to the streets in protest: "There is so much that we need to demand. Still, I think I need to abide by the [coronavirus] rules. But I can really understand those who are protesting."

The killing of a Hezbollah critic

The overall political climate in Lebanon is tense, says Shafik Abdelrahman. He says people from all political stripes have taken to the streets to protest the one-sided appointment of various regional security posts. Tripoli has traditionally been a stronghold for designated Prime Minister Saad Hariri, nevertheless, not one of the posts have been awarded to his Future Movement party. Instead they have all gone to President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. With elections looming, neither Hariri nor his supporters are happy about the situation.

Murdered Shia activist and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim (photo: Colin Bertier/AFP/Getty Images)
A climate of impunity: the murder of Lokman Slim, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, was just the latest in a long list of political killings, underlining the scope of political repression that is rife in Lebanon. As with the August explosion, no-one expects any resolution to Slim's murder

Another reminder of the tense political situation in Lebanon was the recent killing of Lokman Slim, a well-known critic of the Islamic Hezbollah. For years, Slim and his wife used their UMAM Documentation and Research Center in the heart of Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled Dahieh district as a place to reappraise Lebanon's history. His murder was just the latest in a long list of killings and it underscored the scope of political repression exerted on political opposition to the group. Like the August explosion, no one in Lebanon expects any resolution to Slim's murder. Impunity has a long tradition in Lebanon.

The government may fear broader protests, says Nada. "I can't expect anything from this government as long as the same politicians are in charge. Politicians who only look after their own interests and are incapable of governing the country."

That also concerns her when it comes to coronavirus vaccines. Lebanon is supposed to receive its first doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in mid-February. "I don't trust them to store them at the required temperatures," she says, with a nod to the unsafe way in which ammonium nitrate was stored in the port of Beirut before it exploded.

Diana Hodali

© Deutsche Welle 2021

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