Lebanon is currently experiencing the worst economic crises of its history. Rampant inflation coupled with growing unemployment have thrown almost half the population below the poverty line, according to government figures. Increasingly concerning are the COVID-19 lockdown measures, which are putting millions at risk of going hungry, exacerbating an already inadequate social protection system and devastating economic crisis, Human Rights Watch warns.
The economic crisis in Lebanon is not a new development, nor one caused by COVID-19. Rather, the pandemic is the latest development in a country that has been struggling both economically and socially since the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990. Protests have become a regular scene in many major cities. These protests show that for many, poverty is a larger and more pressing concern than the virus or social distancing.
Writing in the Washington Post this week, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, was frank about the situation, explaining how many have “stopped buying meat, fruits and vegetables and may soon find it very difficult to afford even bread”. Diab also assured readers that social safety nets are being expanded to protect the most vulnerable citizens of Lebanon and the highest efforts are being made to provide aid packages.
Yet many community initiatives such as Lebanon of Tomorrow and Beit el Baraka have stepped in to provide food and medical supplies for those in need after concerns that government promises are vague and yet to materialise. The need for such assistance is a central focus of the protests sweeping the country, as the lack of a functioning social safety net has left much of the population struggling to access basic services, Human Rights Watch reports. Under international human rights law, the state is obligated to protect citizens’ rights to an adequate living standard and the highest attainable standard of health, social security, and nutrition.
Last week, negotiations for a rescue package worth $10 billion between the Lebanese government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began. Talks are ongoing on the details of this plan, but economic reforms will be required, such as an overhaul of the banking sector and heavy cuts to the public sector.
The need for financial assistance is desperate, with recent government figures predicting that 75% of the population will require assistance this year. But critics warn that the IMF agreement is leading Lebanon towards an era of further damaging austerity measures which are likely to heighten protests in the country. Cuts in the public sector, Lebanon’s largest employer, will be a further source of anger to those already protesting state neglect and corruption.
Lebanese human rights journalist Kareen Chehayeb argues that further austerity would be catastrophic for most Lebanese citizens, who already rely on a public sector on its last legs. Lebanon has one of the lowest rates of corporate tax in the world and one of the highest rates of income inequality. Rather than putting further demands on the population through austerity, there is potential to address these inequalities and restructure the economy in a fairer direction as a means of alleviating the poverty experienced by much of the population.
Lebanon is in crisis. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation are soaring, and the COVID-19 pandemic is furthering this desperation. Community groups are helping where they can, but resources are stretched, and demand is huge. An international effort and IMF assistance is needed to rescue Lebanon’s economy. Yet to move forward, Lebanon must put the needs of its citizens first. Protesters will not be satisfied by austerity measures and increasingly fragile existences. Lebanon must be allowed to invest in the social welfare systems citizens have so long been denied.
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