Thursday, April 1, 2021

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Musings from Beirut 3 – growing weariness with the next lockdown/next surge cycle

Ask half a dozen Beirutis when the current lockdown is supposed to end or be modified and you’ll likely get half a dozen different answers.

The lockdown pattern here sees a lockdown (full or partial) being vigorously enforced for a few days and then a slacking off until you begin to wonder “What lockdown?”. Except for cafés and restaurants, everything seems to be working again.

The [near]-full lockdown of a couple of months back initially saw people having to flash a downloaded permit to get into the supermarkets on their phones before being allowed in. We were short of supplies that the smaller stores don’t stock, such as fresh meat and frozen chicken pieces, so I went to a large supermarket I often frequent. I don’t have one of those accursed ‘phone’ things so I asked to see a member of the managerial team whom I told that he was discriminating against me because I am a human being and not an android controlled by a little plastic and silicon box. He laughed and told me to wait a few minutes because there was a policeman hanging around ensuring that the rules were being observed, but once he was gone I would be OK to come in. “Ten minutes, alright?” Sure, mate. Half an hour later, loaded up with goodies…

The Lebanese, like most people who can draw on a Western heritage when it comes to ideas about liberty, don’t like Big Brother telling them what to do. They’ll wear it if they see the necessity for the sake of the greater good, but not if they no longer see the point in their freedoms to go about their daily lives being curtailed.

Across Europe there is growing resentment against the lockdown strategy. There have been sizeable protests against lockdowns in several European countries including large rallies accompanied by some violence in the Netherlands, and we Dutchies are hardly known to be into that kind of thing as a rule.

It’s not just the eccentrics who believe that Covid-19 doesn’t actually exist and that the pandemic is a massive hoax who are protesting. It’s ordinary, civic-minded people who simply don’t see the point any more. Next lockdown, next surge; it’s like a dog chasing its own tail.

There is an element of dashed hopes at work here too – there was a widespread tacit belief that once we had a vaccine, the bug could be beaten just about overnight. We now have several vaccines and we’re still locked into the lockdown/next surge cycle. Of course there was a naïveté about the expectation that all would be well once there was a jab, but you can’t quell human optimism.

My better half put it succinctly the other day: when there is a lockdown, the bug goes into a state of dormancy, only to re-emerge with a vengeance once the lockdown is lifted. There is a lot of sense in that appraisal. Recall the catch-phrase ‘flattening the curve’ that we heard so often last year. For those whose high school maths a bit rusty, the total number of infections during a wave is indicated by the area under the curve. A very spiky curve means that you get a high number of infections (and hence hospitalisations and deaths) within a short time. Making the curve flatter means that those infections will be more spread out over time, but it does not necessarily mean that the total number will be lower – the area beneath the curve may well remain the same. The point of ‘flattening the curve’ is to take the pressure off the intensive care facilities at any given moment in time, which is essential to prevent the system from becoming temporarily overburdened and many patients not receiving the care they need.

An increasingly potent argument against lockdowns is the damage they do to the economy and how that impacts public health and life expectancy. Here in Lebanon the economy shrank by 25% over the past year (probably a very conservative estimate). While some of that is attributable to the political upheavals and mounting economic woes that immediately preceded the pandemic, it was Covid-19 that added the fuel to the fire that then became an inferno. Unemployment is rife and the currency has reached the stage where some businesses, especially those that import commodities, are demanding payment in US dollars. In a country without the dole, I can’t for the life of me see how many people are managing to put food on the table. Indeed it would appear that growing numbers do not.

I have noticed an increase in child beggars on the streets of late. Many operate in little teams with an adult minder. I was disturbed the other day at the sight of one very daunting middle-aged woman holding a rod or cane surrounded by five grubby little street urchins being given their orders. After the briefing, a little girl descended on me with outstretched hand. What does one do? The standard donation a year or so ago was a 500 Lira coin or, if the donor was feeling generous, a 1000 Lira banknote – in NZ currency, about 50c or $1. Now you’re talking 5 cents and 10 cents respectively. Do you start handing over 5,000 Lira and 10,000 Lira notes to those kids? It all ends up in the minder’s pocket and the kids are lucky if they get a bit of bread out of it. There is a vicious cycle at work here that I do not intend fuelling.

Beirutis, like everyone else, are asking themselves when what appears to be an interminable cycle will end, and whether they should bother observing restrictions any more. Relative poverty is giving way to absolute poverty for growing numbers of people; hope is giving way to destitution and despair. The security forces have warned that they may not be able to keep the lid on the bubbling cauldron for much longer.

Beirut in 2021 calls to my mind Dickens’ description in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ of the plight of the impoverished masses in Paris in 1789 just before the storming of the Bastille that sparked off the French Revolution. Desperate people have nothing left to lose.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at

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