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Hezbollah’s coronavirus response plan is a political tool, not a cover-up

Hezbollah media tour of their anti- coronavirus campaign in Lebanon 31 March 2020 [Sunniva Rose/Twitter]
Hezbollah media tour of their anti- coronavirus campaign in Lebanon on 31 March 2020 [Sunniva Rose/Twitter]

In recent weeks, accusations have circulated that Hezbollah’s coronavirus response plan is a cover-up for a huge number of unreported COVID-19 cases in Lebanon. Indeed, the Lebanese government, at the Iranian-backed militia group’s urging, continued to allow commercial flights from Iran for more than three weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in Beirut on 20 February. Despite the first case, and several subsequent ones originating from the Islamic Republic, which has the most coronavirus cases in the region.

Though flights to and from Iran were officially banned from 11 March and Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport was shuttered to all but essential movements of cargo, UNIFIL and diplomatic missions from 18 March, on 21 March, a weekly scheduled Qatar Airways flight from Tehran to Beirut arrived as normal. Lebanese authorities claimed the flight carried cargo. Yet, the continuation of cross-border movement with the region’s worst infected nation, and the origin of Lebanon’s first cases, while nearby states, such as Jordan, took draconian measures to contain the disease, has stoked accusations of a cover-up.

A recent Guardian article noted that “parts of Lebanon and Iraq in particular are likely to be holding thousands more sufferers”, the report cites Lebanese officials who allege that Hezbollah has quarantined several southern towns and villages to hide the extent of the outbreak. A policy analysis from Hanin Ghaddar at the Washington Institute lends credence to this narrative and alleges that the militia group’s health plan is a recognition that it can no longer hide the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.

READ: Lebanon: COVID-19 laws put refugees at risk, says HRW

Arguably, it is probable that Lebanon has thousands more cases of coronavirus than reported, but not that Hezbollah is hiding the extent of the outbreak. Official numbers the world over are skewed by a lack of testing, and government advice to corona-suggestive patients to stay home, despite symptoms, to avoid overwhelming healthcare services. These cases, and those that show no symptoms at all – a study in Iceland showed that half of coronavirus carriers show no symptoms – are not included in any official statistics, so it is not just Hezbollah or even Lebanon that is failing to reveal the real number of cases.

A seller in a market wears a mask as a preventive measure against coronavirus (Covid-19) in Beirut, Lebanon on 16 March 2020 [Hussam Chbaro/Anadolu Agency]

A seller in a market wears a mask as a preventive measure against coronavirus (Covid-19) in Beirut, Lebanon on 16 March 2020 [Hussam Chbaro/Anadolu Agency]

Instead, the Iranian-backed militia is using the pandemic as a political tool, to repair the erosion of support caused by months of anti-government protests in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s “Societal Resistance for a Country Free of the Coronavirus Pandemic” plan is a propaganda campaign to restore the idea that the group can fill the void left by the state. In an adage to the very system of sectarian patronage that months of protests have sought to overthrow, Hezbollah, among several other political parties including the Lebanese Forces, have rolled out social healthcare campaigns for constituents.

Hezbollah alone has pledged to deploy 25,000 volunteers, including 1,500 doctors, 3,000 nurses and medics, 5,000 health workers and 15,000 field service cadres. An additional two new testing centres, a fleet of ambulances equipped with ventilators and a hospital repurposed for coronavirus patients – though the group lacks the resources to implement this ethereal health emergency plan.

READ: Philippines envoy to Lebanon dies from coronavirus, as case toll mounts

The details of the massive response plan were revealed during a press tour of the campaign on Tuesday, during which journalists and officials mingled in a blatant disregard of social distancing, isolation and quarantine measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. The lack of regard for safety during a press tour which, under the circumstances, probably should not have taken place, at least without strict preventative measures, which videos of Tuesday’s group show no sign of, demonstrates how Hezbollah’s campaign is a public relations exercise. If the Iranian-backed militia were enacting a cover-up for an enormous number of cases, it would beggar belief not to at least oblige journalists to take reasonable preventative measures. But, since the plan is a propaganda campaign, the group does not feel the need to enforce precaution.

Prior to, and even during, the press tour, members of the militia’s health unit were seen washing streets in Beirut’s southern suburbs with power hoses and disinfectant. Scientists though have said the practice is ineffectual, so, why continue the practice? The answer is simple propaganda, by placing Hezbollah officials seemingly protecting the local community outside the houses of residents trapped indoors due to shutdown orders, while government efforts are less visible, if existent, the group boosts its image of social support.

Coronavirus is affecting the world's economy - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Coronavirus is affecting the world’s economy – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Hezbollah has unveiled new equipment, including an ambulance equipped with a seemingly unnecessary incubateur at a time when the government is appealing to the international community for medical supplies, including basic personal protective equipment. As fear of coronavirus reaches fever pitch, Hezbollah’s response plan will be seen to be stepping up to the threat. While the government’s endeavours, which have boomeranged between begging citizens, the diaspora and the international community for money and promising overwhelmingly large sums of money – $6 million – from the country’s insolvent banks to help fight the virus, appear lacklustre.

READ: Lebanon to investigate the death of Ghanaian migrant worker

A dispatch from Foreign Policy quoted bystander to the press tour Hussein Zaaiter as saying: “Hezbollah is the only one doing anything. The government isn’t doing anything.” This is exactly the reaction the Iranian-backed militia are hoping for. In the past months, Hezbollah, which is the main backer of Hassan Diab’s government, has been seen as part of the political establishment, to be cast aside in a wholescale overhaul of the sectarian system which protesters have demanded. But, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Hezbollah has recognised the political expediency of filling the void left by the state and is seeking to carve out a dominant role for itself in post-pandemic Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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