Lebanon has extended its almost month-long lockdown for another two weeks to contain the spread of COVID-19 as it gradually starts to repatriate citizens stranded abroad.
The general mobilisation period, which was first implemented on March 15, will continue until April 26.
“We cannot say that we have completely contained the epidemic within Lebanon. On the contrary, we are afraid that the epidemic will return and spread vigorously... so we decided to extend the [general] mobilisation,” Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said.
Beirut's international airport, which has been closed since March 18, was temporarily opened for rare flights organised by the government to bring home Lebanese expatriates stranded in Europe, Africa and the Gulf countries.
Health personnel stationed at the airport checked and tested disembarking passengers who were ferried in buses to quarantine centres, where they had to wait for test results. Those testing positive were transferred to the hospital and the rest were asked to self-quarantine at home.
At least 26 passengers tested positive for coronavirus in the first phase of repatriation. A new batch of flights for expats is planned for later this month.
The Lebanese American University's (LAU) School of Medicine said it has put in place a mobile clinic to serve some Lebanese regions that are deprived of adequate medical services.
The clinic will be touring towns and villages offering citizens free testing for the viral infection, in addition to providing health information and medical consultations.
The extended lockdown has brought Lebanon's already fledgling economy to an abrupt halt, with concerns mounting over the poor's ability to survive.
The government said it is finalising a draft plan to tackle the country's crippling financial crisis, which estimates Lebanon will need external financing of $10 billion-$15 billion over the next five years.
“The most positive aspect of the plan is that it reveals openly and for the first time the big losses of the banking sector which are estimated at $83 billion, divided between the Central Bank and private banks,” said Kamal Hamdan, director at the Consultation and Research Institute (CRI) in Beirut.
“The plan is very clear. It calls for the overall restructuring of the banking sector in Lebanon with both the Central Bank and the private banks, mainly readjusting their capital in line with the losses, forcing the merging of banks and eventually ending the Lebanese pound’s peg on the dollar.
“This will entail painful measures including haircuts on major depositors and the deposits of the upper middle-class,” Hamdan said.
Lebanon will have no option but to seek foreign financial assistance, according to Hamdan. “This could come in the form of bilateral agreements with donor countries or through a programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, by proposing a clear plan of action, Lebanon will be in a better position to negotiate.”
The coronavirus pandemic is expected to affect Lebanon’s ability to get the foreign assistance it needs, Hamdan contends. “Negotiations will be more difficult in view of the increasing global demand for financial support from the IMF and the World Bank. Lebanon might get less than the $10-15 billion it is seeking.”
Some international holders of Lebanon's more than $30 billion Eurobonds are reportedly broadly supportive of the proposal. But the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) expressed concerns about the plan’s impact on the banking system and its proposal to impose a financial burden on depositors.
"Lebanese commercial banks are the single largest constituency of Eurobonds' holders, which should be used to the advantage of the government and country as a whole to come up with a credible restructuring plan that ensures that the heavy debt burden is addressed while protecting the health of the banking sector and, more importantly, depositor monies," said ABL in a letter cited by Reuters.
The plan, which is still being discussed by cabinet, was drawn up after Lebanon defaulted on its hefty foreign currency debt last month. The coronavirus lockdown has compounded economic problems that include a weakening currency and capital controls that have denied savers access to dollar savings.
Lebanon has 609 confirmed cases of coronavirus which has killed 20 people so far.
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