The coronavirus pandemic has not deterred people from taking to the streets in Lebanon’s Tripoli, as crowds mingled on the first day of Ramadan to shop, pray, and voice their concern about the ongoing economic crisis in the country.
Lebanon is technically under a “general mobilization” lockdown until May 10, with shops closed and security forces imposing a curfew. However, with Ramadan beginning on Friday, officials allowed shops in the majority Muslim city of Tripoli to reopen from Thursday for limited hours – resulting in shoppers heading to the souks despite warnings the country could experience a second wave of infections as it gradually reopens.
In one sweet shop, a shouting match broke out as customers crowded in, jostling to place their orders for mafroukeh and kallaj. In the old souks, although the crowds were smaller than previous years, a steady stream of shoppers walked through the narrow corridors of the markets.
A pair of friends greeted with kisses on the cheek. Few were wearing face masks – a precaution that Health Minister Hamad Hasan has said will be essential to prevent a second spike in coronavirus infections.
A handful of mosques have also reopened, with men seen gathering for Friday prayers despite advice to social distance.
Sheikh Ahmad Abdelkader al-Aater (known in the community as Abu Abdelkader) who often leads prayers at al-Hamza mosque in the al-Qobbeh neighborhood – one of two in the area that have opened for prayers – proudly showed a video of men gathered inside Friday.
Al-Aater argued that Islamic traditions of cleanliness would prevent the spread of the virus.
“The Muslim every day washes himself five times, if not more, so how can corona stay on his body?” he told Al Arabiya English. “I prefer that they open the mosques, and at the door of the mosques, they can put disinfectant supplies … Like the Parliament, when they entered Parliament the day before yesterday, in UNESCO, they stood in front of the door and disinfected the MPs before they entered.”
“Sometimes fear makes people sick more than the disease,” he added.
Economic concerns outweigh virus fears
Despite the reopening of shops, Lebanon remains mired by a deepening economic crisis.
In Tripoli, employees and shoppers complained that the lockdown had worsened the situation as the price of goods had risen.
“For two months we’ve been sitting without work, employees like me. For two months there’s been no salary, and I have to pay the rent,” said an employee at a shop selling toys and stationary, who gave his name only as Mohammed.
Although the shops were officially supposed to be open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., his store, like many others, was still open at 3 p.m. “Today they looked the other way a bit, so I stayed open.”
The country is suffering from an ongoing currency crisis, resulting in the depreciation of the Lebanese lira. A typical blue-collar worker’s wage of 600,000 Lebanese lira a month, worth $400 at the official exchange rate, is now worth less than $200 at the black-market rate, while the prices of goods have continued to increase.
Ayman al-Hariri, proprietor of a children’s clothing shop and a shop selling women’s undergarments, said despite the reopening, customers have remained scarce – a fact that he attributed more to the economic malaise than fears of COVID-19.
In an attempt to bring in more business, Hariri has started producing and selling face masks and offering cleaning supplies along with his normal wares, but so far without much success.
“The shop was closed, and now it’s open but it’s as if it were closed. Do you see anyone? No one is buying (clothes),” he said. “… The people now are coming to buy food and drinks, vegetables – not meat, because meat has become expensive, chicken and fish have become expensive.”
A shopper who gave her name only as Um Mahmoud, a widow from the neighborhood of al-Qobbeh living with her mother and unemployed brother, agreed with the assessment.
“I can’t get anything for my children, I can’t get them clothes or anything,” she said. While she had come to get supplies for iftar, she said, “Everything has gotten more expensive, meat and everything. We can’t buy anything.”
A can of milk formula that used to cost 26,000 lira is now 50,000 – almost 10 percent of the month’s salary, noted Fawaz Joundi, whose family owns a supermarket in the neighborhood of Bab el Tabbaneh – one of the poorest areas in the city.
“We’re not afraid of the corona – we’re more afraid of the poverty and hunger,” Joundi added.
He pointed to the infection numbers in Lebanon, which have remained relatively low. As of Sunday, the Health Ministry had recorded 707 cases and 24 deaths from COVID-19, although health officials have acknowledged that more testing is needed.
“Maybe because of our environment people have a bit more immunity, I don’t know – we’re used to pollution,” said Joundi, who, like most of his customers, was not wearing a mask. “Maybe it’s the weather, maybe customs, maybe something in the genes – we don’t know.”
Instead, the main concern remains economic disaster.
“I’m afraid we’re going to end up like Venezuela,” he said. “The corona, we’re not afraid of the corona.”