Coronavirus: Lebanon calls in army to enforce lockdown

Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned TV viewers of severe consequences if social distancing rules are ignored

A couple walks at Beirut's seaside corniche, or waterfront promenade, along the Mediterranean Sea, which is almost empty of residents and tourists in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, March 21, 2020. Lebanon has been taking strict measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus closing restaurants and nightclubs as well as schools and universities. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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Lebanon called in the army on Saturday to ensure people stayed at home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed four people in the country.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the number of cases had risen to 230 there despite a call almost a week ago for all to remain at home.

Warning viewers of a further spike to epidemic levels if people continued to flout social distancing rules, he said the government was calling in the army and security forces.

His administration had asked “the army, Internal Security, General Security and State Security to ... implement the order for citizens not to leave their homes, except out of extreme necessity, and prevent gatherings contravening” the order, Mr Diab said.

This would take the form of patrols and road blocks, and those found disobeying would be pursued.

Helicopters flying low over Beirut called on loud speakers for those out on the streets to return home as the changes came into force and videos on social media showed armed forces talking to residents through megaphones.

Mr Diab again called on all Lebanese citizens to observe the curfew, “as the state cannot face this creeping epidemic on its own”.

Last Sunday, the government ordered everyone to stay at home and all non-essential businesses to close.

Beirut’s airport has been shut since Wednesday.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the latest crisis to hit the country, already reeling from a financial meltdown and months of widespread public discontent.

Officials fear the local health system would struggle to cope if cases soar.

Experts warn the country's healthcare system is ill-prepared, as a financial crisis and dollar shortages have for months drained it of critical supplies.

"The interior ministry and army command ... will announce binding plans that will protect the health of the Lebanese," Diab said on Saturday. "It is a very difficult and tough period. Let us reduce our losses."

Earlier on Saturday, police patrolled several areas of the capital Beirut, using loudspeakers to urge bystanders to go home.

On the seafront, they pursued and flagged down joggers, pleading with them to head back indoors.

About 900 million people are now confined to their homes in 35 countries around the world – two thirds by government lockdown orders, an AFP tally indicates.