TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Walking through the narrow alleyways of Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, one gets the sense that Lebanon’s coronavirus lockdown measures have been lifted as street vendors and shoppers interact freely to the sound of regular traffic and frantic market life.
Like tens of thousands of others across the city who face endemic poverty and rampant unemployment, Mohammed al-Ommari, 72, has been left with no choice but to keep his vegetable stall open despite the nationwide lockdown, severely risking his health and that of those around him.
“Dying of coronavirus is better than dying of starvation,” says Ommari, sitting at his stall in the busy market. “We don’t have work ... we have to come here whether they [the authorities] like it or not.”
Although most of the country’s workers are celebrating Labor Day, there is no respite for workers in Tripoli, nor any cause for celebration.
The city’s residents are hard at work scraping together what income they can, in stark contrast to the empty streets and shuttered businesses of Beirut. In Lebanon’s second-largest city, citizens walk around crowded streets with almost no masks or gloves in sight.
Many are not able to afford the personal protection items, and view starvation and homelessness as a bigger threat to their livelihoods than coronavirus.
Ali al-Hussein, 42, started selling cucumbers by the roadside just a week ago after he lost his job. “There’s no work here, I can barely pay rent,” he says as he stands beside his wooden cart by one of the city’s busy intersections. “How can you be scared of coronavirus when this is the situation you live in?”
More than half of Tripoli's population of around 730,000 are estimated to be unemployed and, according to figures from the United Nations, live on or below the poverty line.
Furthermore, the situation has only gone from bad to worse with the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown measures only exacerbating an already crippling economic crisis.
Moreover, due to a series of miscalculations, financial support from the government has yet to grow consistent after businesses across the country were forced to shutter to stem the spread of the virus.
In late March, the government pledged approximately $28 million for “nutrition and sanitary assistance.”
Earlier last month, Lebanon’s Social Affairs Ministry said it had to postpone a promised one-time cash distribution of approximately LL400,000 (the equivalent of $100 on the parallel market) to 187,500 families in need because of mistakes made to the list of beneficiaries.
Since then, the Lebanese Army has distributed cash assistance to around 40,000 families in need, according to the Cabinet, but a comprehensive and reliable nationwide plan for financial assistance has yet to come into fruition.
As a result, Human Rights Watch has now warned that unless some form of aid program is established soon, millions of Lebanese will go hungry.
“I have to feed my children. How can I be scared of coronavirus?” says Mahmoud Shaayeb, 45, a father of seven. “If I stay at home we will die from starvation. It is simply not an option.”
Despite the lockdown and risk of infecting his family, he is forced to take to the streets every day to collect items and clothing that people have thrown away in the hope that he can later resell them in the city’s main square.
Meanwhile, those few businesses in the city that chose to abide by the lockdown measures have now returned to find all their customers gone; most families are no longer able to afford anything but the basic necessities.
“We’re barely surviving,” says Reem, 39, who works in a perfume store in Tripoli’s old souk. “We had to close for over a month and just reopened last week ... but now we don’t even have any customers.”
The same story is echoed over and over again throughout Tripoli.
“How can we be scared of coronavirus when no customers are coming anyway? None of our clients are coming anymore, not even from Beirut,” says Marwan al-Salman, 70, speaking from inside his tailor shop. “We hope to God we can make some money.”
Tripoli Mayor Ahmad Qamareddine told The Daily Star that getting citizens to stay at home and wear masks was difficult in light of the extreme levels of poverty in the city.
“We can’t tell them to go inside because there is extreme poverty in certain areas and houses are small with very large families living close together,” Qamareddine says.
“Also, people who don’t work don’t get paid. People can’t afford masks and gloves. The situation is not easy, this is why you see people going to protests and breaking things,” the mayor adds.
Tripoli’s crushing poverty is anything but new and has been the fuel for the country’s largest protests.
Since nationwide anti-government protests erupted on Oct. 17, Tripoli – dubbed the “bride of the revolution” – has seen its residents take to the streets day and night with unmatched fervor, driven by decades of crippling poverty, inequality and chronic underinvestment at the hands of the government.
After months of quiet due to the virus outbreak, violent protests erupted in Tripoli Monday night after the Lebanese pound dropped to historical lows, which resulted in the death of a 26-year-old father shot dead by security forces.
Numerous banks in the city were destroyed by protesters with grenades and Molotov cocktails. Around 200 people, including soldiers, were reported injured.
According to a HRW report released Wednesday, the Lebanese Army used “unjustifiably excessive” force in their attempt to quell the unrest against protesters, and the Army has since expressed its regret about the protester’s death and opened an investigation into the incident.
For many however, it is a case of too little too late, with some activists saying that the next wave of Lebanon’s revolution has only just begun.
In the meantime, Tripoli’s residents are trapped in a cycle of worsening poverty, but unable to surmount it by any means other than putting their health on the line amid a global pandemic.