A fisherwoman wearing an N95 mask around her neck and rosaries in her hand sits while smoking with a beer along a bench on the corniche of Lebanon's capital Beirut on March 21, 2020, after she was prevented from fishing by local authorities as part of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

TRIPOLI — On the eve of a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, a group of men blocked off the modern gates of Tripoli, the stretch of highway leading to Lebanon’s second-largest city.

It was March 17, and the country’s neglected northern metropolis, which looks out to the Mediterranean and borders Syria, still had not recorded any novel coronavirus cases. The impoverished protesters were incensed the government was threatening their livelihoods with a nationwide lockdown.

“Someone came to me asking for 1,000 LBP (50 cents) because he can’t even buy bread for his kids. I had a package, so I gave it to him and kept three slices for my own kids. This is where we’re at!? Isn’t it shameful!” one man cried out in a video filmed on a mobile phone.

“I swear to God, I saw a guy sell his cooking gas canister to buy milk for his kids!”

A young man, a struggling taxi driver in the city, lambasted the government for waiting a month after the first Covid-19 case was flagged to cut off air travel.

“If they were smart, they would have shut down the airport from the beginning, because it came from the airport, not the land border,” he said.

Lebanon’s first cases of coronavirus were citizens flying back from Shiite religious pilgrimages to Iran, with the first positive test result announced February 21. At the time, Iran was not yet a global epicenter for Covid-19 – with less than two dozen cases – but in the three-and-a-half weeks that followed, alarm grew over daily flights from Qom and other Iranian cities.

Residents of Tripoli, with its population overwhelmingly Sunni, appeared initially more insulated, but the Beirut-based outbreak has since made its way up the coast and to the mountainous districts above the city. Other cases later arrived via Egypt. On Tuesday, the confirmed cases had risen above 300.

“The government didn’t act from the beginning. Now they want to fix it and be smart. So they put us in this health lockdown,” said the taxi driver.

“But if you want to do a lockdown, you need to give people the means to survive it. Tripoli isn’t Beirut, we’re living day by day.”

“They’re saying it’s going to be a 15-day shutdown,” another man chimed in. “How are people supposed to eat if their shops are closed and they don’t have work?”

Army deploys

A 2015 joint Lebanese government-UN study found that more than half of Tripoli’s population was living at or below the poverty line.

A study released two years later by the Tripoli-based Safadi Foundation found unemployment rates topping 60% in some neighborhoods, and most of those who were working earning below the minimum wage of 675,000 Lebanese pounds per month.

That amount, previously equalling $450, is now worth between $250 and $337, after Lebanon’s peg to the US dollar unraveled in the past six months.

In a somber televised address on Saturday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced even stricter measures due to a mushrooming of cases – ordering the army and security forces to enforce a total lockdown on unnecessary movement.

Only shops and markets selling basic necessities like food, medicine, and water would be allowed to remain open.

“The coronavirus is waiting at the doorsteps of your homes,” Diab declared. “Lebanese, I am calling on you today to engage in a self-curfew, because the state alone cannot confront this epidemic advance.”

By Sunday afternoon, police and soldiers were fining joggers, while supermarkets were allowing only five customers to enter at a time. Hommus stands were placing tables and counters between themselves and customers, while pharmacies were handing out medications through tiny windows.

In Tripoli’s port district, only birds, church bells, and a rare car can be heard during the day, while in the evenings, somber prayers are recited from the seaside mosque – an extraordinary event outside the normal call to prayer.

But while most neighborhoods of the city were on self-imposed lockdown, some of the poorest and most crowded areas were challenging the restrictions.

“Yesterday in the souk, people weren’t closing their shops. And not just that — there were crowds. People are cruising in groups and hanging out as if everything is normal. Some people still aren’t processing the seriousness of the situation,” said Ali, a resident of the Tripoli neighborhood of Qobbé, on Tuesday.

On social media and especially Whatsapp, some Lebanese were calling the virus a conspiracy or fake, while others claimed it was a poisonous gas that would soon dissipate, Ali said.

Those theories, however, may also be a coping mechanism, as many Tripolitans lack any financial reserve to provide for themselves or their families during a lockdown.

“There’s people who can’t stay a week or two at home without work. They don’t have money. So the government needs to do something to compensate,” Ali told Asia Times.

The problem is that Lebanon, like many governments across the world, lacks the reserves or social safety net to do so.

Telethons, cash envelopes

The novel coronavirus has compounded a deepening financial crisis in Lebanon, which has found itself with dwindling foreign reserves and the real possibility of being unable to import the most basic needs: fuel, grain and medical supplies.

While the vast majority of Lebanese have been cut off from their savings by informal capital controls, connected elites have managed to ferry billions out of the country, compounding the currency crunch of the government.

FitchRatings downgraded Lebanon to CC, or “near default” on March 9, after the country failed to pay a bond maturity for the first time in its history.

The Diab cabinet, cobbled together three months into nationwide protests that began in October of last year, was already exploring an IMF loan when Covid-19 broke out, and it has scarce if any capacity to provide emergency funds to citizens barred from their work.

Politicians who have for years been using state institutions and utilities to enrich themselves and satisfy patronage networks are now offering relatively pitiful sums to prop up the national health system and first responders.

A telethon on one of the country’s most-watched talk shows Sunday turned into a “champagne fight” in the words of one observer, with show-off philanthropy put to use as political and business elites vied to be the most generous patron of the Lebanese Red Cross and public hospitals — many preferring to offload their devaluing Lebanese pounds rather than donating in USD.

Activists in Tripoli in recent days have sent out fundraising calls via Whatsapp, organizing to deliver envelopes of cash donations under the doorsteps of the needy on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

“Their head of household is home; their head of household is out of work,” read a slogan in one such ad, with phone numbers for each neighborhood in Tripoli.

Others whose cash flows have ground to a halt are relying on personal networks, whether a friend working in the Gulf, or a relative with a coveted NGO salary in dollars. But as the global economy suffers the impact of the novel coronavirus, those networks also threaten to shrink.

And in cities like Tripoli the world over, the resilience of those left behind by the hollowing out of public services and corruption will come under a stress test not seen in years and even decades.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.