Banks on fire, sometimes violent clashes, the protest is back in the streets of Lebanon. If the coronavirus epidemic seems relatively contained (25 deaths), the restrictions to curb its progression aggravate poverty and are the final blow to an economy in agony. "We'd rather be swept away by the coronavirus than starve to death," shouted demonstrators in Tripoli, the hottest spot of the protest.
All over the country, with the restrictive measures, daily workers find themselves unemployed, they earn no salary, have no health insurance, no social insurance. Today, 50% of the Lebanese live below the poverty line and 40% are unemployed. Desperate and undermined by financial worries, many have tried to set themselves on fire.
"We need international assistance now more than ever," said President Michel Aoun during a meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon on Monday, April 6.
Galloping inflation, liquidity shortages and a sharp depreciation of the currency against the dollar. All financial indicators are in the red! Mired in a deep economic and social crisis, Lebanon is drowning under a debt of 92 billion dollars, that is to say 170% of GDP.
Since November, banks have been virtually closed and are increasingly limiting withdrawals. Lately, while many transactions are made in dollars, banks have decided to deliver almost exclusively Lebanese pounds. However, most deposits had been made in dollars.
As a result of currency depreciation, households purchasing power has fallen by about 60 per cent since last summer. Prices have risen by about 55%, as Raoul Nehme, the Minister of Economy, acknowledged. A tin of powdered milk, which used to be worth 20,000 Lebanese pounds (€12), is worth more than 50,000 (€30) today. "We have nothing! We can't afford to buy bread!” explains Dana, a Lebanese woman, on TV5 Monde.
In this climate of tension, the Lebanese went to the streets hardly after they received the confirmation of their deconfinement. In Tripoli, a 26-year-old man was killed during violent clashes between demonstrators and the Lebanese army. Scenes of urban guerrilla warfare unfolded until late in the night of April 25, in a city filled with tear gas smoke and warning shots. Twenty people were also injured when a military vehicle was set on fire by the spray of a Molotov cocktail. Several banks were also vandalized and burned in Beirut, Saida and Tyre. Beside that, the coronavirus crisis already seems quite derisory and belonging to the past.
The article may seem pessimistic but at the time of its writing, the national and local media do not devote any space for hypothetical good news. But rest assured, dear readers, it is in this particular context that the mission of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient makes more sense than ever. We have important projects to come and we will try to the best of our capacity to help the Lebanese people who do not deserve what is happening to them.
The economy is sinking, the banks are burning, but there is still hope.