(Beirut) – Millions of from Lebanon residents are at risk of going hungry due to containment measures linked to the pandemic, unless the government urgently puts in place a strong and coordinated plan to provide assistance, Human Rights Watch said today. COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already devastating economic crisis and exposed Lebanese policy shortcomings social protection system.
“Containment to slow the spread of COVID-19 worsened poverty and economic hardship endemic 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 of the population may not be able to afford food and basic necessities.”
The government urged people to stay at home on March 15, 2020. The confinement is in place until at least April 26. On April 1, the cabinet announced that it would distribute 400,000 Lebanese pounds (around US $ 150 at current market rates) to the poorest families, but offered few details. A week earlier he had committed 75 billion Lebanese pounds (about $ 28 million) for nutrition and health assistance, without any details. It is not clear if both ads refer to the same support.
Activists providing assistance to needy families in Beirut, Saida, Tripoli, and Zgharta told Human Rights Watch that despite government promises, no help materialized.
Nearly a month after the lockdown began, the lack of a swift, clear and 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 lockdown rules. A street vendor threw his products onto the streets in frustration after police suspended his business. A jobless construction worker who can no longer afford the rent has offered to sell his kidney. Demonstrations have already erupted against mounting economic difficulties in various parts of the country, notably in the neighborhoods of Qobbe and Jabal Moshsen 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 Lebanese population below the poverty line would drop from 30 to 50 percent in 2020. Some Lebanese economists estimate that this figure has increased considerably. The current economic crisis, which led to nationwide protests lasting several months from October, has left the majority of the Lebanese population with little or no means to cope with further hardship. The poorest households are mainly concentrated in the informal sector. Over eighty percent of the poorest workers have informal and seasonal precarious jobs with wages below or close to the poverty line, which makes them particularly vulnerable to financial shocks.
Inflation – which the Ministry of Finance has estimated will reach 27% in 2020 – and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound by almost 50 percent have dramatically increased the prices of basic commodities such as food and medicine. Mahmoud Kataya, an activist who works to deliver food baskets to families of taxi drivers to allow them to stay in their homes, told Human Rights Watch that the price of a food basket containing basic food items is expected to last two weeks for a family increased by more than 25%, from 80,000 Lebanese pounds (about $ 30) to 108,000 in the week following the lockdown.
Local initiatives have sprung up to fill the gaps, but activists told Human Rights Watch they lack the means to provide for all the families who need help. The Lebanese Food Bank, for example, funded entirely by donations, sends boxes containing basic food items and hygiene kits that can accommodate a family of four for up to a month to 85 non-governmental organizations. These organizations distribute the boxes to vulnerable families they have identified across the country. Other initiatives provide medicine, rent money, blankets and clothing to families in need.
“If the government extends the confinement [until April 26], more than three quarters of the Lebanese population will not be able to comply, ”Ghaleb Dwayhi, a social activist working in Zgharta, told Human Rights Watch. Activists working in Saida, Tripoli and Beirut have shared fears that without urgent help, the government may find it nearly impossible to implement the lockdown measures in the coming days.
The government’s response reflects and exacerbates the gaping gaps in the existing social protection system in Lebanon. There are few formal programs to support poor households. The National Emergency Poverty Targeting Program is the main official response against poverty, but experts have criticized the program as inadequate and not reach those who need it most. Little has been done at the national level to regularly assess poverty in the country.
To address its lack of data, the government has asked families seeking relief from the coronavirus to ask for help via the municipalities and “mukhtars” (local officials). Experts and aid groups told Human Rights Watch of their concerns that such processes can be manipulated by political parties and facilitate networks of patronage.
Lebanon has extended deadlines to pay taxes and utility bills, but he took little other action to ease financial hardship. It has not, for example, suspended residential or commercial rents or mortgage payments, nor imposed 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 granting a significant grace period to allow families to pay for accrued fees. These measures do not require significant public spending and can help address people’s economic vulnerability during this crisis.
The Central Bank of Lebanon issued a circular on March 23 authorizing banks to extend five-year interest-free loans to existing customers. This measure, designed to help struggling businesses and individuals, did not require recipient businesses to take measures to protect workers, such as maintaining existing employee levels. There is no cap on 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 the right of people 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 in emergency funding available for countries struggling to cope with the economic impact of COVID-19, and it is reviewing requests from more than 90 country. If Lebanon receives assistance from the IMF, the funding should be used to support the poorest households. The World Bank has already approved the reallocation of $ 40 million of an existing project to increase the capacity of the Lebanese health system to test and treat COVID-19.
The Lebanese government should improve the coordination of the economic response to COVID-19 between its various ministries and institutions, as well as with local and private initiatives that have already carried out needs mapping assessments, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also clearly communicate its economic assistance plans to the public and clarify eligibility, timing and procedures. Lebanon should use any emergency international aid to increase direct support to vulnerable households.
“The besieged population of Lebanon is at the limit,” Simet said. “The government must quickly develop an assistance program that protects people’s rights and gives them access to the resources they need to survive this crisis.