Social Distancing as a Class Privilege: The Case of Lebanon

The lockdown measures instituted by governments in many countries impacted by the coronavirus spread have resulted in the emergence of a parallel, if not conflicting, narratives.

Masked riot police are confronted by one of many protesters who broke lockdown to protest deteriorating living conditions in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 28, 2020 -Copyright AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The lockdown measures instituted by governments in many countries impacted by the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in the emergence of parallel, if not conflicting, narratives. A prevalent narrative is one labeled as the "romanticization of quarantine" where relatively well-off people share their experiences of being productive or bored at home during lockdown. Binging on Netflix, live-streaming home workout exercises, relying on home delivery services to minimize the risk of infection, stocking up on food supplies, and being able to continue work remotely are a small sample of the privileges that only the middle and upper class can afford. Whilst reflective of an absence of a degree of empathy as well as awareness of the situation of those disenfranchised, this also extended to the criticism if not even demonization of those not abiding by the distancing measures, mostly from the lower class. This phenomenon is not limited to one or even a few countries but rather a deep reflection of the inequalities present in society. Whether it’s the impoverished and long-neglected regions of the country or the overcrowded refugee camps with dire living conditions, Lebanon is no exception.

The dichotomy of good and bad coronavirus citizens is heavily flawed as it, purposefully or out of ignorance, obscures the privileges that the lower class simply do not have. The option is not between working remotely or choosing to go work, nor is it between going to work or relying on hefty savings until the storm passes. The working class of street vendors, market workers, daily paid laborers, and many others have no choice but to muddle on, even if that means defying lockdown measures. Those already marginalized, disempowered, and impoverished are at most risk of being infected and not being able to receive the needed medical treatment. More than half of the labor force in Lebanon is classified as being in the informal sector where they lack any legal or social protections. This is coupled with struggling small businesses, wide-scale layoffs, and unpaid leave in the formal sector as well.

It did not come as a surprise that Tripoli, one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean, witnessed a refusal by workers to shut down shops as they skirmished with the police. While official restrictions remained, implementation on the ground loosened because of the deteriorating situation. Nightly protests occasionally occurred as protesters chanted "We want to eat, we want to live" as they marched and rioted in the streets, in defiance of lockdown. Poverty rates reached at least 50% earlier this year, and Minster of Social Affairs stated that around 75% of the population is in need of some form of aid. This figure rises to 90% among refugee communities. Such aid however has been slow, limited, and riddled with clientelist considerations.

Trilateral Classist Assault

The response from the media, better-off Lebanese, and the security apparatus had class dimensions written all over it. Mainstream media adopted an aggressive and derogatory campaigns against anyone not abiding by the lockdown, notably in impoverished and overcrowded neighborhoods. This coincided with gathering donations for charity, which can be considered as a short-term solidarity initiative, but it was also criticized by activists for whitewashing the damaged reputation of corrupt political and financial elites largely responsible for the economic crisis and underdevelopment of marginalized areas. The media rhetoric trickled down to some segments of the public as middle- and upper-class society also participated in this public shaming. Whether through casual conversations or social media chatter, low-income workers continuing "as normal" and protesters gathering without wearing face masks were looked down upon. They were blamed for "wasting weeks of "good citizens"" efforts of abiding by government measures". The security apparatus topped it off as the government used the lockdown as a pretext to violently crack down on any sign of dissent, especially in the poor areas of Tripoli and the suburbs of Beirut. A taxi driver was fined by the police, and in response, he set his car on fire to protest the unbearable living conditions made even worse by the corona crisis and absence of state welfare. A fruits and vegetables street vendor also threw his produce on the ground after police suspended his work. This anger is not the result of isolated incidents, but a general feeling of powerlessness as security forces and army personnel target the weakest links in society whilst protecting banks and public officials who profited immensely off the rigged politico-economic system.

Beyond Aid Packages

With austerity measures of an IMF bailout right around the corner, a disappearing middle class, expected rise in wealth inequalities, and reports of torture of protesters in custody, the recent uptick in violence is just a sign of things to come. The poor and marginalized are increasingly taking to the streets to express anger against the ruling elites and their policies. The absence of any meaningful aid package from the state also adds to the severity of this reality. While cash-based programs might be a needed temporary fix for alleviating the immediate impact of the current crises, this is not what people should aspire for. The roots of the socioeconomic collapse will not be solved by this neoliberal approach to poverty alleviation. For lasting change to occur, fundamental structural changes must be made to the economic system accompanied with deep social protection, in a way which guarantees a fair and equitable distribution of wealth and resources.

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Jimmy Matar, Program Manager at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung office in Lebanon

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