BEIRUT: A cluster of over 70 coronavirus infections found among Bangladeshi migrant workers living in a single building in Beirut’s Ras al-Nabeh, has highlighted the poor living conditions of vulnerable residents in Lebanon under lockdown.
Lebanon’s estimated 250,000 migrant workers are especially vulnerable both to coronavirus and to its economic impacts. Risk of infection is exacerbated by factors including overcrowded living spaces, limited access to social protections, precarious working conditions, and low salaries made even worse by the steep depreciation of the national currency.
“Most foreign workers are housed very close together and this is the perfect recipe for an outbreak and contagion to happen,” says Dr. Firas al-Abiad, head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital.
“You can see how one person moving within these tight communities can infect someone and cause an outbreak ,” Abiad told The Daily Star.
Around 74 infections among the Bangladeshi workers from the building were detected over the last week alone. Abiad says the rapid increase of infections in a short amount of time is a cause for concern.
“This is the first time Lebanon has seen a cluster this large from the same building and we’ll likely see more infections,” he says.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Singapore where tens of thousands of infections erupted among migrant workers living in confined quarters should serve as a warning.
Migrant workers living below the poverty line often reside in cramped quarters, sometimes sharing an apartment with over a dozen individuals without proper ventilation or air conditioning. These conditions make self-quarantining almost impossible and increase the risk of an outbreak.
Around 40 of the infected workers are being treated at RHUH, which has taken on the majority of coronavirus patients in the country since the illness was first detected almost three months ago. The other 30 patients are being treated in various governmental hospitals, a Health Ministry source told The Daily Star.
Those who tested negative are currently still quarantined in the building where the cluster was detected.
According to the Health Ministry source, the small building housed approximately 170 residents and is under heavy surveillance by security forces to ensure that residents adhere to isolation measures. No one is allowed in or out.
However, as the virus has a two-week incubation period, testing negative is no guarantee that a positive result won’t emerge later on. This means that infections could still spread among the residents living in close quarters.
“If someone tests negative it doesn’t mean they won’t test positive later on. This is why they need an effective method for self-isolation,” says Fadi El-Jardali, director of the Knowledge to Policy Center at the American University of Beirut.
“If you’re living in a crowded apartment, self-isolation doesn’t work. They have to be provided with the needed space so they can make sure they pass 14 days without testing positive,” he says.
But the Health Ministry source said that he was not concerned if all residents of the building were infected because the majority of them are young and cases are mild.
“They won’t die, God willing. They’re all young workers,” the source said. “Our goal is to make sure that we can take care of those infected. If hospitals are full, then we will close down the whole country.”
The source said that those who tested negative were transferred to a hotel overnight Saturday to Sunday so that the building could be sanitized, but said they would later return despite the potential of more infections.
For undocumented workers the challenges of the pandemic are even greater.
“Out of fear of being detained or deported, they might not report symptoms because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” says Zeina Mezher, project coordinator for the International Labor Organization in Lebanon.
“Migrant workers who might need hospitalization are also at risk of losing their jobs because employers might not want to pay hospital bills” Mezher says.
Migrant workers with informal or seasonal jobs are among the first to be laid off in an economic crisis, which pushes them into undocumented status. Often workers will escape abusive employers they live with, leaving them without documents because employers can confiscate their passports and identification.
All migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are bound by the Kafala system that ties their residency status in Lebanon to their employer. This leads to abuses including forced labor and trafficking as workers lose their legal status if they break off from their sponsored employer.
Abiad said that RHUH would take undocumented workers without question, saying that to report them would be “counterintuitive as the goal is to catch and isolate emerging infections.” But in late March, two Ethiopian workers looking to be tested for coronavirus told Al-Jazeera they had been turned away from the hospital because they did not have adequate identification.
“When you already have a weak health system, those in the most vulnerable positions will suffer the most if they get infected,” Mezher warns.
The lockdown measures to contain coronavirus have further compromised Lebanon’s economy, which has already been teetering on the verge of collapse for months. Since plunging into financial crisis in late 2019 due to a severe dollar shortage and capital controls imposed by banks, the Lebanese pound has lost an astounding 60 percent of its value.
Although the local currency is currently trading at LL4,000 to the dollar, most employers are paying employees in Lebanese pounds based on the official exchange rate of LL1,500 to the dollar rather than the parallel market exchange rate.
This means that migrant workers who were previously paid an already low $150 a month or its equivalent in Lebanese pounds are now only receiving 30 percent of their salaries.
Over a month ago, around 400 migrant workers mainly from Bangladesh and India went on strike against Lebanese waste management company RAMCO for slashing their salaries and paying them in Lebanese pounds.
RAMCO’s director Walid Abou Saad told The Daily Star that the company had started paying the workers in Lebanese pounds as of Nov. 2019 because the government stopped paying the company in dollars.
Abou Saad said that RAMCO supports the workers’ rights to strike but maintained that “Our company cannot pay them in US dollars if the government does not pay us in US dollars.”
The company has since agreed to marginally increase salaries by considering the exchange rate to be LL1,800 to the dollar.
STRANDED IN LEBANON
As the economy continues to deteriorate, thousands of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines have registered to leave Lebanon and return to their home countries.
There have been over 10,000 requests from migrant workers to leave the country, estimates Dima Haddad, project officer for the UN Migration Agency in Lebanon.
In early May, Ethiopia had sent two non-commercial flights to repatriate its citizens, but the flights were postponed due Cabinet’s decision to extend lockdown until June 7.
Coronavirus lockdown measures have shut down Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, making evacuation flights extremely limited and expensive. This has left migrant workers in the country stranded, without work and unable to pay rent while NGO and embassy shelters are at full capacity.
Over the last week, Lebanon saw the largest surge in coronavirus infections, with 125 cases recorded over the course of 48-hours on Thursday and Friday. More than 40 of these cases were detected among the Bangladeshi migrant workers in Ras al-Nabeh.