CORONAVIRUS

Lebanon's People Don’t Want To Be Resilient Anymore. They Want Change.

The Beirut explosions ripped through a fragile society already struggling with a financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 100 people are dead and thousands more injured after the capital of Lebanon was rocked Tuesday by a pair of explosions set off by a fire in a warehouse that had been storing confiscated “highly explosive materials.” As officials worked Wednesday to pinpoint the causes of the blasts, residents were angry and devastated by yet another failure of government in a city plagued by corruption and economic woes. 

Gruesome images of the aftermath, posted to social media, showed bodies and bleeding people, houses and workplaces wrecked, broken glass and debris on the streets, and widespread damage across Beirut. Crowded hospitals were forced to turn away injured patients and relief organizations called for blood donations to treat the mass injuries. Marwan Abboud, Beirut’s governor, described the events as a national catastrophe and likened the destruction to that following the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tuesday’s events exacerbated the precarious conditions that already existed in Lebanon and its complicated road to recovery. For a traumatized population, the explosions may be the final straw — many are fed up with the failing political class and have renewed calls for changes in government as well as economic and social reform.

The Lebanese people have mastered the skill of coping with and adapting to new challenges, but the events of this week are “beyond any concept of resiliency,” said Nasser Yassin, a professor at the American University of Beirut. “No community would be able to cope with all of this.”

Endless Rounds Of Suffering

Elaine Ziadeh, a 33-year-old sales manager at a pharmaceutical company who lives in Mtaileb, a suburb north of Beirut, was on the phone with a friend in the city when the explosions occurred. All she heard was screaming on the other end of the line and then the phone disconnected. Ziadeh began to panic; she thought her country was being attacked and a war was about to begin.

After reading online about the explosions and checking in on friends and family, Ziadeh and her aunt went out to buy bread. She was worried that the country’s already severe bread shortage would worsen and that her family wouldn’t have the basic necessities to survive. It’s an instinct they’ve developed over years spent in a country rocked by political and economic instability.

In the last year, Lebanon has plunged into one of its worst financial crises since its civil war ended three decades ago. The country’s currency, the Lebanese lira or pound, lost over 75% of its value in the last nine months. In a nation that imports up to 80% of its food, prices for basic commodities like bread and sugar have skyrocketed. Half of the population lives in poverty and thousands are on the brink of famine. International aid agencies said half a million children in Beirut are going hungry.

Fed up with the collapsed currency, decades of government corruption and officials’ poor handling of the economic disaster, protesters across the religious and class spectrum joined together in massive demonstrations last year against the ruling elite and in favor of sweeping social and economic reform. 

“The protests that broke out last October were aimed at the whole political class, those inside and outside the government, the sectarian leaders who are deeply corrupt and who have failed to provide for the communities,” said Will Todman, associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of Lebanese can agree that the political class is failing them and that they need a complete change in the system. But the problem is, how do you actually achieve that? What are the steps taken to actually bring about a new system? I think that’s where it’s gotten stuck,” he added.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Lebanon and near-total lockdown measures were implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19, the country’s fragile economy further deteriorated. At least 36 people have died from the virus since February. 

The pandemic containment measures have added to the severe human costs of the ongoing economic downturn. In a nation of less than 7 million, more than 200,000 people had already lost private sector jobs as of early March and more workers faced steep pay cuts. The government began to ration fuel and power with some residents receiving only a few hours of electricity a day. Prices rose and the food crisis brought the middle class down to poverty levels. Vulnerable communities including migrant workers and the more than 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon took a massive hit. 

When Famed Resilience Breaks Down

After decades of political, social and economic turmoil, the Lebanese population has earned a reputation for its resiliency. But now many question if their renowned ability to handle adversity has led to a degree of complacency and acceptance of unlivable conditions ― including the storage of explosive material dangerously close to people. 

“There is growing anger by many of the Lebanese people about why this happened. We’re going to see real action over this,” Yassin said. “This clearly was an act of negligence and a major act of irresponsibility and a result of corruption and clientelism. People are not going to let this pass easily. They are going to demand accountability.”

Yassin also noted that this same fallback on the people’s resiliency is often used by the country’s politicians to avoid accountability and maintain their power and corrupt practices. He warned that the Lebanese people, although resilient, are no longer accepting of the status quo.

“People are angry. They’re angry at the government, they’re angry for the country,” said Ziadeh. “Many things could have been avoided, whether it is the collapse of the Lebanese pound, whether it is the increasing number of COVID cases, whether it is the hospital capacity, or whether it is the explosives today. But people are also emotional and sad and scared.”

The compounded crises have taken a toll on the country’s mental health. Suicides are on the rise, particularly among young people. But young people are also leading efforts to overhaul a country that has brought them both pain and hope.

“People don’t understand the energy of the young generation and the feeling that they’re not prepared to put up with what their parents’ generations have put up with and that they are no longer prepared to accept that this is just how things are, and they know it’s not sustainable,” Todman said. “Young people are prepared and want to reach across all kinds of social divides whether that’s class divides, sectarian divides, whether it’s geographical divides, to push for positive change.”

Back in Lebanon, Ziadeh and Yassin said they’re confident the country will weather this crisis like it has so many others before. But they worry about the length of the road to recovery.

“There’s something about Lebanese people, which I think is both positive and negative at the same time ― it’s like we adapt really quickly to everything,” said Ziadeh.

The duality of both loving and hurting for her country, she said, has left her emotionally paralyzed.

“Lebanese people are very patriotic. They love Lebanon. So when people say, ‘I feel Lebanon bleeding,’ they actually do feel Lebanon bleeding. Like a war veteran, we’re half-alive, half-dead.”