Hoda Kerbage, 39, starts her day by putting on gloves and a face mask, sanitizing her hands, and disinfecting her shoes and car before hopping behind the steering wheel for a journey to deliver aid packages to families in need all over Lebanon.
Her new daily routine, started since the outbreak of coronavirus in Lebanon in March, is divided among collecting donations, sanitizing them and packaging them before their delivery to those in need.
Kerbage, an activist and author from the Matn district of Beirut, is a part of a campaign known as A’Kadna Initiative run by dozens of Lebanese activists helping desperate Lebanese during a nationwide lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are a group of volunteers and activists from all walks of life who came together and started several initiatives to support families in need,” Kerbage told VOA. “We reach out to people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, the elderly in need of care and those who have weak immune systems and can’t go out to get what they need during the lockdown.”
Already suffering from a severe financial meltdown and political instability, Lebanon has been hit hard by the contagious coronavirus in recent weeks. The World Health Organization has recorded 548 positive cases with 60 recovered and 19 deaths. The Lebanese government is registering new cases every day despite tough measures, including social distancing and a curfew from 7 p.m. till 5 a.m.
Activists say government measures to combat the virus have pushed many workers and their families to the brink by forcing them to close their businesses without offering any economic compensation. Kerbage said she is reaching out to those people to offer a helping hand through the A’Kadna Initiative.
The initiative has so far helped at least 6,000 families, and its membership has expanded to include celebrities, journalists, academics and activists.
“Social solidarity is a duty at a time the Lebanese government is not there for its people and doesn’t have a plan to face humanitarian and health crises like the coronavirus. Then, what is left for us? What is left is for the people to stand beside each other,” she said, adding that Lebanese communities throughout history have helped each other in times of crisis and hardship.
Kerbage witnessed the Lebanese civil war in early 1980s when she was a child, before moving to France where she studied filmmaking at the Sorbonne University in Paris. After her return to Lebanon a few years ago, she joined forces with advocates working for environmental issues and women’s rights such as the Sa’irat network.
The majority of donations during the current pandemic are coming from individuals and local retailers who offer significant discounts on materials the activists need to distribute. She charged that “the power of despair is moving us as we can’t take anymore the level of poverty and destitution that the people have reached in this country.”
Lebanon has been struggling with the brewing economic crisis that resulted from the country’s inability to pay its $80 billion debt and nationwide protests against the ruling elite since October 2019. The breakout of the coronavirus has only added to the woes of the country, with the World Bank estimating poverty could rise by 50% if economic conditions worsen.
Lebanese opposition groups and activists blame the crisis on mismanagement of public resources and corruption by consecutive governments leading to the current Hezbollah-led government. Some activists hope that social solidarity and community outreach during the pandemic could increase people’s political awareness to demand swift reforms.
Jad Yateem, founding member of activist group LiquaaTeshrin, told VOA that people in Lebanon are doing their part to combat the coronavirus by staying at home despite harsh economic conditions, while many Lebanese living abroad were chipping in by donating to hospitals and medical clinics. He said that many doctors in the country are also volunteering to work overtime, even as many of them have not received their salaries for months.
“Doctors and engineers in Lebanon are also working on building ventilators to encourage local production of ventilators at a time the country is witnessing a soaring financial crisis and struggling to pay its debt,” said Yateem.
LiquaaTeshrin demands government reform to save the country from bankruptcy. The group took an active role during the 2019 civil protests and says the Lebanese government failed to take effective measures at the early stages of coronavirus pandemic.
Local reports say Lebanon’s first confirmed coronavirus case was a woman who had just returned from Iran in February. The Lebanese government at first denied the reports and refused to stop flights from epicenter areas like Iran. Critics say Tehran’s proxy Hezbollah was behind the government’s slow response.
Hezbollah, however, says the government is doing its best to combat the virus despite its limited resources.
“Coronavirus has imposed a challenge on us right now, and it is our responsibility to face it,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in televised speech Tuesday, insisting that the Lebanese government remained in control of the situation and was ready to take more protective procedures.
Hezbollah is a Shiite radical group founded in 1982 and supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The United States considers the group a terrorist organization that aims to advance Iran’s agenda in the Middle East.