Hezbollah has launched its own battle against the coronavirus, one that works alongside the Lebanese government’s response.
In Borj Al Barajneh, in the crowded southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah is mobilising against the coronavirus. Within Lebanon’s fragmented public services the militant group already offers healthcare, part of what some call a ‘state within a state.’ This means it has an existing infrastructure to utilise.
A former primary health care clinic has been converted into a Covid-19 testing centre. It aims to be able to test around 100 people per day, potentially more, and is open to everyone. “Anyone can come because this is in our interest, even if it is a foreigner. This person is living in between us, so we have to stop spreading infection, even if it is a foreigner it is free for them to do the test,” said Suzanna Habib, a General Practitioner. She is one of the thousands of doctors volunteering. In total they say there are around 24,000 volunteers, doctors, nurses and paramedics at the ready.
All part of a Hezbollah media tour, also lined up on show were a fleet of 33 ambulances and paramedics. “We have 10 ambulances equipped with 10 ventilators, [with] 10 respirators in each one and we have two kinds of ambulance. The first for critical cases, the second for suspected cases with corona,” said Raja Zreik, Civil Defence Director in the Islamic Health Unit for Beirut.
The Islamic Health Organisation is Hezbollah’s health department. When asked where the ambulances and the funding came from Zreik said: “We usually prepare for the worst-case scenario and so we had some already.” He shrugged with a smile, not alluding any further on whether they came from Hezbollah’s Iranian backers.
The ambulances are in addition to a converted hospital, street cleaning, and supplying aid for families in need. With a chronic economic situation, worsened by the lockdown, some people say they fear starvation more than the coronavirus.
The government promised an aid package of about $140 USD for around 190,000 families. The aid was stopped before it was delivered though, due to controversy over the names on the lists, with accusations that some families were chosen for their political affiliations rather than their income. Now the list has been re-written at just 44,000 and is slowly being distributed by the army.
The government’s funding of the public Rafic Hariri Hospital treating coronavirus victims is also problematic, with the funding being dramatically decreased since last year. Medical staff are facing reduced pay, something which they have gone on strike about during the corona outbreak, and medical supplies in Lebanon are precariously low. The spokeswoman for the medical equipment importers in Lebanon has said that due to a lack of dollars and banking restrictions nothing has been imported for six months.
Therefore, Hezbollah’s additional facilities and aid will undoubtedly save lives, but some say, they are taking the opportunity to make it clear that they are stronger than the government, as the provisions could have been provided via governmental channels. The government largely consists of ministers from the March 8 bloc, of which Hezbollah is a part, and the Health Minister is a Hezbollah affiliate.
Abou Hadi Krayem, a Hezbollah Press Officer, says: “As a civil society, we’re trying to support the government and not replace it, because we can’t.” He adds that Hezbollah aid packets are given out in conjunction with the government’s packages and they share lists of who they have provided to.
Sami Atallah, Director of the Lebanese Policy Centre, says it is a double-edged sword, between assistance and clientelism: “This undermines democracy as we know it. [...] We very well know that in Lebanon political parties win their support by supplying clientelistic services to its constituency and they are actually using the coronavirus to claim back some of the credibility that they have lost over the years of mismanaging the resources of the country. So this has been the perfect occasion for them to come back to the political scene and provide these services and to actually win political support.”
Hezbollah is not the only political party to be doing this though, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party has donated to hospitals and the Free Patriotic Movement has been visibly cleaning the streets and procuring testing kits. Hezbollah’s response is by far the most substantial though.
“Now in the age of pandemics, we are seeing these political parties, including Hezbollah, using this occasion to actually provide such services. Now of course they are not asking for anything in return, but it does actually signal to the people about the capacity of these political parties to provide such services which would ensure their political loyalty in the next election,” said Atallah.
While clientelism has won over the electorate for the past few decades, and the aid may be welcomed due dire times, this is the very thing that people have been out on the streets protesting against for the last six months.