(Beirut) – Millions of Lebanon’s residents are at risk of going hungry due to pandemic-related lockdown measures unless the government urgently puts in place a robust, coordinated plan to provide assistance, Human Rights Watch said today. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already devastating economic crisis and exposed the inadequacies of Lebanon’s social protection system.
“The lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 has compounded the poverty and economic hardship rampant in Lebanon before the virus arrived,” said Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. “Many people who had an income have lost it, and if the government does not step in, more than half the population may not be able to afford food and basic necessities.”
The government urged people to stay home on March 15, 2020. The lockdown is in place until at least April 26. On April 1, the cabinet announced that it would distribute 400,000 Lebanese pounds (about US$150 at current market rates) to the poorest families, but offered few details. A week earlier, it had pledged 75 billion Lebanese pounds (around $28 million) for nutrition and sanitary assistance, without any details. It is unclear whether both announcements refer to the same assistance.
Activists providing aid to needy families in Beirut, Saida, Tripoli, and Zgharta told Human Rights Watch that despite the government’s pledges, no aid has materialized.
Almost a month into the lockdown, the lack of a timely, clear, coordinated government response has left many families hungry and unable to afford basic necessities, including rent. A taxi driver set his car on fire when security forces fined him for breaking the lockdown rules. A street vendor threw his produce on the streets in frustration after the police suspended his business. A jobless construction worker who can no longer afford rent offered to sell his kidney. Protests have already erupted against mounting economic hardship in various parts of the country including in the Qobbe and Jabal Moshsen neighborhoods in Tripoli and in Beirut.
In November 2019, months before the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, the World Bank predicted that the portion of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line would rise from 30 to 50 percent in 2020. Some Lebanese economists estimate that this figure has drastically increased. The existing economic crisis, which led to months-long nationwide protests beginning in October, has left the majority of Lebanon’s population with little or no means to cope with extra hardship. Poorer households are primarily concentrated in the informal sector. More than eighty percent of the poorest workers have precarious informal and seasonal jobs with wages below or close to the poverty threshold, making them particularly vulnerable to financial shocks.
Inflation – which the Finance Ministry estimated will reach 27 percent in 2020 – and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound by almost 50 percent have drastically increased prices for basics like food and medicine. Mahmoud Kataya, an activist working to deliver food baskets to families of taxi drivers to enable them to stay home, told Human Rights Watch that the price of a food basket containing basic foodstuffs that should last a family two weeks increased by over 25 percent, from 80,000 Lebanese pounds (approx. $30 USD) to 108,000 within a week after the lockdown.
Local initiatives have sprung up to fill the gaps, but activists told Human Rights Watch that they do not have the means to provide for all the families who need assistance. The Lebanese Food Bank, for example, funded entirely by donations, sends boxes containing basic food items and hygiene kits that can last a family of four for up to one month to 85 nongovernmental organizations. These organizations distribute the boxes to vulnerable families that they have identified across the country. Other initiatives are providing medicine, rent money, blankets, and clothing to families who need them.
“If the government extends the lockdown [until April 26], more than three quarters of Lebanon’s population won’t be able to abide by it,” Ghaleb Dwayhi, a social activist working in Zgharta, told Human Rights Watch. Activists working in Saida, Tripoli, and Beirut shared the concern that without urgent assistance, the government may find it almost impossible to enforce the lockdown measures in the coming days.
The government’s response reflects and exacerbates gaping holes in Lebanon’s existing social protection system. There are few formal programs to support poor households. The Emergency National Poverty Targeting Programme is the primary official anti-poverty response, but experts have criticized the program as inadequate and not reaching those most in need. Few efforts have been made at the national level to assess poverty in the country on a regular basis.
To address its lack of data, the government has asked families seeking coronavirus-related relief to apply for aid via municipalities and “mukhtars” (local officials). Experts and aid groups expressed concerns to Human Rights Watch that such processes can be manipulated by political parties and facilitate patronage networks.
Lebanon has extended deadlines for paying taxes and utility bills, but it has taken few other measures to relieve financial hardship. It has not, for example, suspended residential or commercial rent or mortgage payments, or mandated a moratorium on evictions. The government should consider suspending rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the lockdown, Human Rights Watch said. It should also consider forgiving utility payments or providing a significant grace period to allow families time to pay accrued fees. These steps do not require large government outlays and can help address people’s economic vulnerability during this crisis.
Lebanon’s Central Bank on March 23 issued a circular allowing banks to extend five-year no-interest loans to existing customers. This measure, designed to help struggling companies and individuals, did not require companies that benefit to take steps to protect workers, such as maintaining existing levels of employees. There is no ceiling for these loans, so corporate borrowers could swap existing loans for new interest-free loans.
Despite limited resources, the Lebanese government has an obligation, under international human rights law, to protect people’s right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food and nutrition, the highest attainable standard of health, and social security.
The IMF has said it will make up to $1 trillion available in emergency funding to countries struggling to cope with the economic impact of COVID-19, and it is considering requests from over 90 countries. If Lebanon receives IMF assistance, the funding should be used to support poorer households. The World Bank has already approved the reallocation of $40 million from an existing project to increase the capacity of Lebanon’s healthcare system to test and treat COVID-19.
The Lebanese government should improve coordination of the COVID-19 economic response among its various ministries and institutions, as well as with local and private initiatives that have already done needs-mapping assessments, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also clearly communicate its economic relief plans to the public and clarify eligibility, timeline, and procedures. Lebanon should use any international emergency assistance to increase direct support for vulnerable households.
“Lebanon’s embattled population is on the edge,” Simet said. “The government needs quickly to develop an assistance program that protects people’s rights and gives them access to the resources they need to survive this crisis.”