Get sick or starve: 24-hour curfew leaves Lebanon's poor with no choice but suffering

Shadia has run out of rice for her family of nine.

The Syrian mother had hoped the 5 kilos she bought last week would be enough to feed her for the duration of the draconian national lockdown Lebanon imposed on January 14 in response to rising coronavirus cases .

More than a week later, however, little food is left in the family’s single room bungalow. There is a 24-hour curfew during which residents are only allowed outside in cases that are officially considered “emergencies”. Supermarkets across the country are closed.

The lockdown, which was originally scheduled for eleven days, has now been extended to February 8, leaving Shadia, 33, and her husband desperate to think about how their family will survive. In addition to the lack of food, the terracotta roof of their house has collapsed, so the family huddles under blankets on the floor to stay warm.

“As a mother, I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t afford anything for my children, not even daily food,” she said on a WhatsApp call from Dahiyeh, a suburb south of Beirut.

Some of Shadia’s children are sitting in their bungalows during the lockdown in Dahiyeh, a suburb south of Beirut. The Syrian family moved to Lebanon in 2014 after fleeing Idlib during the Syrian civil war. Shadia

Shadia’s fears are reflected in Lebanon, where more than half of its 6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. Decades of political corruption, severe inequality and a lingering economic crisis have meant that coronavirus concerns have taken a back seat to other challenges – especially after a massive explosion at the Beirut port warehouse in August killed 200 people and destroyed a third of the capital . However, now millions of impoverished people are struggling with the lockdown.

On Wednesday and through Thursday, anger turned violent in the northern city of Tripoli as thousands of protesters clashed with the army over lockdown rules for a third night of riot. Civilians threw grenades at security officers, and water cannons and tear gas were used by officers to suppress the crowd. At least one protester was shot dead with live ammunition and more than 70 were injured, according to The Associated Press.

“We actually heard people say,” I would rather die of Covid than of starvation, “said Lebanese activist Dayna Ash, the founder of the non-profit arts organization Refuge for artists.

Shadia has no residency status in Lebanon, a country with more than 1.5 million Syrian refugeesand asked that her last name not be published for fear of the authorities taking notice and possible deportation.

An almost empty bread department in a supermarket in Beirut, Lebanon, days before a national Covid-19 lockdown on January 12, 2021.Bilal Jawich / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Shadia and her husband fled Idlib, Syria during the Syrian Civil War in 2014 with their four birth children and three orphaned children whom they call their own.

Before the lockdown was announced, her husband was able to make some money doing odd jobs on the street, and Shadia saved up to buy an extra phone to improve her children’s education. The children, ages 6 to 15, share a cell phone to go to school online.

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The curfew has cut off this source of income, and Shadia now has to choose between educating her children and putting food on the table.

“When the quarantine took place, everything went up. They increased the price of bread,” she said. “I’m not going to starve them to raise them.”

The government eased social distancing measures during the Christmas and New Year holidays to help fuel the volatile economy. As a result, Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed and more than 5 percent of the population are currently infected.

Frontline workers are overwhelmed as hospital admissions spiral out of control. Pictures of people being treated in their cars went viral on social media.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of daily Covid-19 deaths is more than five times what it was in July.

A non-governmental organization worker distributed free food to people living in poverty in Tripoli, Lebanon, on January 20.Khaled / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

When supermarkets are closed, people who want to leave their homes to go to hospitals or pharmacies, including doctors, are required to fill out a government-approved permit form. Workers for local nongovernmental organizations said the government has declined their requests to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable families.

“They live because we send them food,” said Maya Chams Ibrahimchah, founder of the Lebanese charity Beit el Baraka. The nonprofit provides food to 226,000 people, typically through its free grocery store. “It is not normal today to tell NGOs that you are not allowed to work when most of these people with houses that exploded in the explosion still have a roof over their heads.”

Ibrahimchah said she made hundreds of calls every day when families asked about diapers, milk and food.

Despite the lockdown restrictions, the helpers continued to distribute the essentials. Ash left home several times, pretending to go to the pharmacy as an excuse to deliver food boxes.

The workers prepare fruit and vegetables for the residents of Nabatieh in southern Lebanon.Taher Abu Hamdan / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

The Lebanese Armed Forces have distributed universal service To thousands of vulnerable families during the lockdown, according to local media. However, charities said the government lacks the resources to reach more than a fraction of those in need.

The Lebanese Ministry of Information did not respond to several requests for comment.

Many shopkeepers are concerned about the survival of their business in an already turbulent time for the economy. Barbel Basil, the chef and owner, opened the popular Le Chef restaurant last month after it was destroyed by the explosion. Now the lock has forced him to close the shop again.

“I feel like someone who flies a plane and is forced to make an emergency landing,” said Basil.

The government has received an emergency loan from the World Bank to help those hardest hit by the pandemic. Given the severely eroded public confidence in the government, shopkeepers in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, an area that bore the brunt of last summer’s explosion, are skeptical that support will come.

“We’re still waiting,” said Guy Doniguian, a print shop owner, with a laugh. “Today, tomorrow, after tomorrow, after a year, after 10 years, after 100 years nobody knows.”

The Associated Press contributed to the coverage.

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