BEIRUT: Before the first phase to ease coronavirus lockdown measures in Lebanon has even begun, citizens encouraged by the low number of reported infections have started to relax on social distancing behavior.
Over the last week more and more people – many in groups – have been wandering the streets of Beirut, a stark contrast to the empty roads seen in the first month of the nationwide lockdown to stem the outbreak of COVID-19.
An Army source confirmed to The Daily Star that there has been a significant spike in road traffic and group gatherings over the last two weeks as numbers of reported infections appeared to have begun to plateau.
The source estimated that adherence to lockdown measures had decreased from 95 percent to 70 percent in recent weeks, and that the Army had been distributing more fines for vehicular violations than in the initial weeks of lockdown.
“People have seen that infections are decreasing and they are also going stir-crazy and want to get out,” the source explained. “But the Interior Ministry and Army will be cracking down on gatherings.”
Entering its third month under lockdown, which began on March 15 and has been extended by Cabinet until May 10, Lebanon’s reported daily coronavirus infections and deaths have been relatively low.
For the first time since the disease was detected on Feb. 21, the Health Ministry Tuesday recorded zero infections and zero deaths.
“Not a lot of people seem to be getting sick. I feel like it’s okay to move around and see your friends if they’re also being safe. Plus, we’re young and I don’t live with my parents,” May, 27, told The Daily Star.
May and her three friends were walking along Beirut’s Corniche, an act that could result in a fine, according to security forces’ lockdown regulations.
May says she and her friends break curfew often to visit each other and have not yet encountered any trouble with authorities.
“I know lots of people who [break curfew], not just me. At a certain point I think that if we’re being safe, we should be able to move around,” May says.
Many have taken the low infection rate as a green light to ease up on social distancing behavior and even on wearing personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.
But public experts have warned that mass testing for coronavirus needs to be implemented in Lebanon for a more accurate picture of the outbreak. The Health Ministry said it would aim to administer a total of 1,500 PCR tests per day over the last week, but numbers have yet to reach that goal.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab following Friday’s Cabinet session warned of a second wave of coronavirus infections if caution was not taken moving forward.
Around Beirut’s Gemmayze, typically a hot spot for bars and cafes, groups of people over the last week have been walking without masks despite warnings that COVID-19 remains a threat.
“I don’t really think I need it. I’ll carry one if I need to go to a supermarket or into a pharmacy,” says Ali, 35, on his morning jog down Armenia Street.
Despite extending the general mobilization period, Cabinet Friday announced a five-phase plan to begin easing coronavirus measures to reopen the country and get the economy running again.
Lebanon’s deteriorating economy has been a key factor in recent social distancing breaches, as citizens have returned to the streets to protest worsening living standards in the country.
“If coronavirus doesn’t kill us, starvation will. I can’t feed my family. What option do I have? This is my main priority,” said Mohammed, 56, a protester in Martyrs’ Square.
The Lebanese pound continued its sharp depreciation against the U.S. dollar Thursday and Friday, trading at around LL3,800 to the dollar among most exchange dealers, the lowest rate to date which was not reached even during the 1975-90 Civil War.
This has elicited a resurgence of anti-government protests and gatherings of hundreds of people in city squares across the country.
In the northern city of Tripoli, dozens of protesters gathered Monday demanding to go back to work, saying that the spread of coronavirus had waned sufficiently enough for them to resume their trade.
Two large “car convoy” demonstrations were held in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square Tuesday and Wednesday to protest worsening conditions. Protesters were asked to remain in their cars to maintain distancing measures, but many embraced and huddled, chanting songs of the revolution while security forces stood by.
On Thursday night, dozens of protesters gathered in front of Hamra’s Central Bank well beyond curfew. Some protesters wore masks, but many did not.
Standing on the shoulders of a fellow protester in Martyrs’ Square, 32-year-old Hassan shouted, “The country is starving and the government is doing nothing.”