Lebanon protests prevent healthcare workers from performing coronavirus tests
Anti-government protests broke out for the second day running in several parts of Lebanon on Monday amid a crash in the local currency and a surge in food prices, leading to road closures that prevented medical teams from setting out from Beirut to conduct coronavirus tests across the country.
The Health Ministry said its teams would try again on Tuesday, urging protesters to let the paramedics work to evaluate the spread of the virus in the small country of 5 million people.
The protests came as the government began easing a weeks-long lockdown imposed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in Lebanon, which has reported 710 cases and 24 deaths so far.
The number of registered cases has dropped over the past two weeks, leading to the shortening of the night-time curfew by one hour. Some businesses were allowed to resume work on Monday.
The Lebanese national currency hit a new record low over the weekend, with 4,000 pounds to the dollar on the black market while the official price remained at 1,507 pounds. Coronavirus and the lockdown has worsened the most serious economic and financial crisis to hit Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
Around noon Monday, Lebanese troops forcefully removed dozens of protesters from a major highway in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, and traffic resumed. Shortly afterwards, it was blocked again with burning tires.
The Lebanese army said it respects the people's right to protest as long as the protesters don't close roads or attack public and private property.
“Our demands are simple and we are not asking for the impossible,” said protester George Ghanem in Zouk Mosbeh, citing early parliamentary elections and an independent judiciary. "We want to live in dignity ... we will continue and no one will remove us from the street.”
A woman carried a placard reading: “My salary buys me two cartons of milk.”
On Sunday night, the Central Bank of Lebanon issued a circular instructing currency exchange shops not to sell the dollar for more than 3,200 pounds. On Monday, most exchange shops were not selling dollars, saying clients who have dollars are refusing to exchange their hard currency at such a low price.
Earlier over the weekend, several banks in northern and southern Lebanon were attacked, some with firebombs, reflecting rising public anger against capital controls on people’s accounts.
In a sign of the deepening crisis, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Friday accused the longtime Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, of orchestrating the Lebanese currency’s crash, and criticized what he called the governor's “opaque” policies that the premier said covered up major banking sector losses and capital flight.
Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries and has been grappling with a liquidity crunch, an economic recession and rising unemployment.