COVID-19: Seven trends that will shape peacebuilding in Lebanon

Over the past months Lebanon has faced many challenges: an economic crisis, widespread protests and political upheaval. And now, the country is grappling with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Healthcare centre in Lebanon, 2014 © Nadim Kamel

These layers of crises present a real challenge to the country’s already stretched public services, economy, social fabric and stability.

It is too early to tell what the lasting repercussions of the current crisis will be. However, we can see seven trends which are likely to influence peacebuilding prospects for the country.

1. Increasing community tensions

Whilst many people are pulling together, the realities of lockdown are increasing both inter and intra community tensions.We are seeing discrimination against refugees (Syrian and Palestinian) and some municipalities placing restrictions, such as curfews, on refugees but not others. Relationships among some Lebanese are increasingly tested, deepening social, economic, regional and confessional divides.

Misinformation on social media can also fuel tensions. In a positive move, government and civil society have been quick to counter misleading messaging. But further stoking division, some political parties have been mobilising to provide assistance exclusively to their supporter bases.

COVID-19 is affecting already strained public services. Healthcare centres are one of the main flash points, with already overstretched frontline workers bearing the brunt. Healthcare workers who are directly treating COVID-19 patients are reporting experiencing facing stigma themselves.

As the crisis and lockdown measures persist, issues related to water and sanitation are likely to be another trigger, as some municipalities may prioritise local communities, and waste collectors may be afraid of working in areas where there is a perceived higher risk, including informal refugee settlements.

Whilst assistance is direly needed, it should be provided in an inclusive, coordinated way based on vulnerability, rather than to garner political support.

2. Widening existing inequalities

Pandemics can aggravate existing inequalities based on gender, age and ability – and COVID-19 is no different. In Lebanon, those hardest hit are working in the informal sector and living in overcrowded urban centres, informal settlements or refugee camps, for whom social distancing is not an option. This serves not only to increase risk amongst vulnerable Lebanese, refugees and migrant workers, but also to widen economic rifts.

Post-COVID-19 recovery will see those with more capital (social and economic) and networks fare much better than those without.

3. Deepening economic crisis

COVID-19 struck a country already in financial turmoil, with service providers struggling to deliver basic medical supplies and equipment

This financial insecurity has fuelled protests against the lockdown’s economic impact, both in the streets and increasingly online. Given the role of economic grievances in the 2019 protests, rebuilding the post-COVID-19 economy and addressing the structural problems of Lebanon’s financial system will be crucial in restoring faith in financial and government institutions.

4. Trust in state institutions risks being a casualty

Pandemics highlight the importance of coherent, evidence-based and well communicated state responses to mitigate the impact of the virus. At the same time, they can also highlight limitations of the state to effectively manage the crisis. Trust in authorities, including security services, is crucial in gaining support for and compliance with response measures.

In Lebanon, the COVID-19 crisis come at a time when trust in the state is low. In January, 81% of Lebanese already had negative perceptions of the government, compared to 32% six-months earlier. The story varies based on different political actor’s responses, local context and perspectives. While the Lebanese government took quick and decisive action to apply lockdown measures, reality on the ground differs. In some neighbourhoods of Tripoli and Beirut, for example, there have been protests against the lockdown’s impact on people’s ability to earn a living.

5. A gendered impact

The impact of COVID-19 is deeply gendered. Whilst we hear that ‘the virus does not discriminate’, it does have different affect people differently based on gender, age, class, ability, location, nationality, etc.

In Lebanon, as across the globe, there are increasing concerns that the crisis will exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities. There are more women on the frontlines working as nurses or social workers (in Lebanon 80% registered nurses are women, compared to a 70% global average). The closure of schools places additional burden on women who are generally responsible for unpaid work at home: cooking, cleaning, caring for family. Lockdown has also highlighted the increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV). Women refugees and domestic workers are likely to be more at risk.

According to UN Women, the virus and responses to it are likely to have a long-term impacts on women’s economic participation and increase women’s and girls’ burden of care for family members. Women and particularly frontline workers should play larger roles in decision-making and setting policy related to health security surveillance, detection, and prevention mechanisms.

6. Positive grassroots community responses

Not all the impacts of the crisis are negative. Across Lebanon community groups are mobilising to provide support, such as food and medical supplies, for vulnerable community members.

These groups include networks which grew out of the 2019 protests and are now coming together to share accurate public health messaging, combat misleading information and support local humanitarian responses. One example is civil society partnering with the tourism sector to provide low-cost accommodation for frontline health workers and help protect their families. Support should be given to such local initiatives, often capable of reaching more vulnerable people, to continue to aid and to coordinate effectively with municipality Local Task Forces.

7. Opportunities for conflict-sensitive assistance

First responders, healthcare and social workers are working tirelessly in difficult conditions with limited resources. The Ministry of Public Health, NGOs and international partners are working together to coordinate a response across the country, share guidance and key messaging.

Despite best efforts, even interventions aimed at saving lives can do harm and exacerbate tensions amongst communities already under great pressure. This can include perceptions of unequal access to treatment and services, unintended stigmatisation of communities targeted through health campaigns, or trust in service providers being undermined by reports of corruption in the provision of medical supplies and other services. Where stress runs high, it is critical that services are, and are seen to be, effective, consistent, transparent, accountable and inclusive.

Lessons can be drawn from experiences of healthcare and other humanitarian actors’ delivering services in complex emergencies and as well as from the peacebuilding sector. For example, International Alert has been working with Amel Association, and other healthcare actors, to advance a contextually relevant model for conflict-sensitive and rights-based healthcare and social services in Lebanon, which has practical guidance to offer for the crisis.

The shared concerns and priorities around responding to COVID-19 offer an opportunity for actors to work together to ensure that vital assistance is provided to those in need in a way that is inclusive and considers diverse needs, supports local and national infrastructure, and takes into account the social, economic, gender and conflict impacts.