In Beirut’s empty streets, Lebanese largely welcome stringent lockdown

The cash-strapped country is trying to control a recent spike in Covid-19 cases

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Beirut's usually busy streets were much quieter than normal on Friday despite a few traffic jams at roadblocks aimed at ensuring that a new 24-hour curfew is enforced.

“The lockdown is way better respected this time around because it’s a full lockdown,” said a policeman at a roadblock near central Beirut who withheld his name because he did not have the authorisation to speak to the media.

On Thursday, Lebanon entered its most stringent lockdown up to date.

Until January 25, supermarkets will only operate delivery services. People must stay home except for a limited number of reasons, such as going to the pharmacy or health emergencies, and have to fill out an online form. Some professions, including healthcare and food transport, are exempt.

The Lebanese government is trying to curb the spike in Covid-19 cases after Christmas and New Year festivities. Each day brings a record number of new cases and deaths. In total, the virus has infected 237,132 people and killed 1,781 in the small Mediterranean country.

At the roadblock near the Beirut city centre, many cars were pulled over and fined because their drivers had not filled out the online form.

“My employer gave me a letter certifying that I’m out for work, but that’s not enough apparently,” said Abdelhakim Al Masri, a 67-year-old employee of an electricity maintenance company who said he did not know about the form.

A police officer wearing a face mask talks with a driver at a checkpoint, as Lebanon tightened lockdown and introduced a 24-hour curfew to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sidon, Lebanon, January 15, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The exact amount that offenders must pay remains unclear because it is at the discretion of a judge.

“The fine is usually around 100,000 Lebanese pounds, and I don’t think it goes over 300,000 Lebanese pounds,” said the police officer.

That's between $66 and $200 at the official exchange rate, or between $11 and $34 on the black-market rate. The Lebanese economy crashed months before the country was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The local currency lost about 80 per cent of its value in the past year.

The lockdown complicates shopping for the country's poor, who make up more than half the population.

In Sabra, just south of Beirut, locals said that supermarkets do not deliver. “They’re worried about problems,” shrugged a man carrying groceries in plastic bags.

Vegetable stalls were open on Friday at the popular Sabra market, one day after the Lebanese police tweeted pictures of shops with their shutters down.

“When the police come, everyone closes. As soon as they leave, people open again,” said Khaled, 47, standing in front of a small shop selling hummus. The entrance had been closed off with large gas bottles.

“They can’t really fine us anyway. How are people going to pay? They can barely eat,” continued Khaled, who said he was unemployed.

Children and women begged on the muddy streets, asking for as little as 500 Lebanese pounds, or $0.05.

“We have to keep working because otherwise we would have no other income,” said Baker, a young man in his 20s who sells salad, mint and onions at Sabra’s market with his father.

Last August, Baker was laid off from his job as a receptionist at an upmarket hotel in Beirut after it was heavily damaged by the explosion of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the capital's port. The investigation into the cause of the blast that killed more than 200 people is ongoing.

“Of course, people are afraid of the coronavirus. But they also have to live,” said Baker as he served clients. Roughly half wore face masks.

Despite some activity at the market, most people stayed home on Friday. “This is less than 10 per cent of the usual crowd,” said a man stocking potatoes.

Seagulls are seen at en empty corniche, as Lebanon tightened lockdown and introduced a 24-hour curfew to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sidon, Lebanon, January 15, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Shops selling anything other than food remained closed.

In a country with a weak state and where laws are rarely enforced, the fact that the lockdown was largely respected surprised Fariha Saeed, a shopper in her mid-thirties.

“I didn’t stock up in advance because I thought the market would remain open as usual. But it’s empty,” she said. “I can’t even find fruit or olive oil. I have no idea what I’m going to cook tonight.”

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