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Coronavirus compounds Lebanon's woes, many struggle for food


By Tom Perry and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Battered by Lebanon's economic crisis, Hassan Zeitar was already struggling to keep his family fed when the coronavirus lockdown stripped him of the little money he made as a minibus driver.

Now housebound in Beirut, Zeitar is racking up debt at a local grocery to provide rice and lentils for his four children.

"There are lots of things we don't bring home any more: meat, dairy, fruit," the 39-year-old said. "There are many like me in the neighbourhood, everyone is getting in debt, everyone is in a difficult situation, nobody is working."

Zeitar once earned enough to support his parents. Now the future scares him. "I now worry more for my family about hunger than corona," he said.

A suffocating economic crisis has left Lebanon's poor with little or no means to cope with extra hardship. Two weeks into Lebanon's lockdown, there are growing signs of desperation.

A taxi driver set his car on fire while at the wheel when he was fined for breaking rules. A homeless hairdresser has offered to sell his kidney. Protests have erupted in the northern city of Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley about mounting hardships.

Some six months before the virus outbreak, Lebanon's long-brewing economic problems came to a head as capital inflows slowed and big protests erupted against the ruling elite. The currency has sunk and unemployment and inflation have soared.

The heavily-indebted state, which defaulted in March, is poorly placed to help the poor.

"People are getting really desperate," said Maya Terro, chief executive of FoodBlessed, which she co-founded to deliver food to the needy. "From 50 to 100 calls per day, we are now receiving calls in the thousands."

In the last two weeks, FoodBlessed has doubled weekly distributions to 200 parcels, each with enough lentils, rice, oil, sugar and other staples for 150 meals.

ACCELERATING POVERTY

"A lot of people before were ashamed to say they are poor or need food aid. But with corona, because a lot of people are feeling helpless, nobody is ashamed," she said. "We were contacted by a teacher who used to teach French. She said she never thought she would be asking for food assistance."

"Donations are scarce because a lot of individuals are starting their own initiatives."

With a population of about 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon had recorded 479 coronavirus cases and 12 deaths, as of Wednesday.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the World Bank projected 40% of people would be in poverty by the end of 2020, a forecast Economy Minister Raoul Nehme believes is now outdated.

"It will accelerate the trend. We might very well reach a peak higher than 40% before we go down," Nehme told Reuters.

"I am very concerned and unfortunately our means are very limited," he said, adding many people were only just getting by day to day before but have now lost even that daily income.

The government will offer the poorest 400,000 Lebanese pounds, about $150 at the black market exchange rate.

It is also developing a $450 million programme with the World Bank to support the poor. This was due to be implemented in September but Nehme said it needed to be accelerated: "We have to move faster."

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ayat Basma, Alaa Kanaan and Issam Abdallah; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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