Ali M. Kassem
On March 15, 2020, the Lebanese government announced a nationwide full-lockdown to curb the coronavirus. A few weeks later, campaigns demanding repatriation flights for Lebanese citizens eager to return to the country gained wide momentum. By early April, the newly-formed government of Hassan Diab announced plans to organise such flights. A few days later, Middle East Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier, announced the first phase of this.
While this was at first hugely welcomed, it soon became a topic of significant controversy. Prices for a one-way ticket, for example, were set at three to four times the MEA prices for return tickets before the lockdown had begun. The reactions of many were unreserved and voiced deep protest at flights meant only to ‘return the rich’, and their money, to the small Mediterranean country.
In reaction, Middle East Airlines held a press conference and explained that it was a private company – although its parent organisation is the National Bank of Lebanon and that it functions under the direction of the Lebanese government. With the required precautions around the flights, and the need for physical distancing keeping half of the seats empty seats, the flight would cost significantly more and that price must be paid by the consumer, MEA explained. The company was not, its director-general stated, willing to suffer any financial losses. Nevertheless, students were offered a 50% discount or be allowed to pay in Lebanese pounds. Given Lebanon’s currency devaluing on the unofficial market, this was also estimated to make the price around 50% cheaper.
This, surely, satisfied very few people as most could not afford the price even with the 50% discount. Social media campaigns continued, as did the indifferent flights. Interested citizens were asked to apply online, and embassies in each country would generate a list specifying who would be allowed to board the flights; prioritising the elderly, the sick, students.
Soon, reports swamped various media outlets with claims that the decision around who was allowed to return was plagued by corruption and networks, particularly to ambassadors and to MEA, leaving those without connections behind. No official statement from MEA or the government was made around this, and the flights continued undisturbed.
During the second London flight, around 10% of passengers tested positive for coronavirus at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri airport. The government’s reaction was swift: no passenger would be allowed to board any future flight from London without a negative PCR test result. In reaction, the government was widely praised for a strong will and efficient defence of the country.
In late April, a few days before the second phase of flights commenced, I was contacted by the Lebanese embassy and told that my name had been approved. The coronavirus test cost 145 GBP. It also required a trip to London, two days before the flight. When I asked the embassy about the risks and costs, they claimed these were things I could handle myself.
Two days later, I travelled to London and arrived at the medical lab chosen by the embassy, where tests were taking place in the lab’s parking lot. I waited, was tested, and made my way back to my residence. A few days before my trip to Lebanon, I spent hours on public transportation and walked through many crowded London streets.
Receiving a negative result, I made my way to Heathrow two days later, again using public transportation. Heading for boarding, I found a team of doctors, employees from the ministry of health, as well as employees from the general security services at the plane’s boarding gates. Clad in white impermeable robes with multiple layers of protective equipment, they took our temperature, gave us gloves and face masks, and asked us about our health as they handed out forms that we would need to fill once on the plane.
Quickly, it became clear that physical distancing in seating only applied to those passengers traveling alone. The plane was most surely not 50% empty as MEA had claimed. The plane soon took off and, shortly afterwards, meals were distributed as people took their masks off to eat, often not putting them back on once they finished.
Soon, employees from the health ministry and the General Security Services began to roam what were now crowded aisles to ask people to fill in forms. Here, many people could not fill the forms in Arabic. As they needed extensive assistance, the rules of physical distancing seemed to further collapse. At this point, we were also given wristbands and asked to wear them. They appeared to be all the same, blank with nothing written on them. With no clear purpose, they appeared a sterile measure of monitoring.
Four hours later, we arrived in Beirut. In groups, we were taken to have our temperatures checked again, as well as have another PCR test. More forms were filled, including ones asking for the details of our quarantine process, our address, our phone numbers and those of our family members.
We then left the airport and headed to our private quarantines. The municipality under whose jurisdiction I was residing called every day to ensure that I had no symptoms. The regional emergency services also called. A few days into the quarantine, a municipal police officer came to physically check I was fine, and to ensure I was at the designated address. A few days later, another police officer came knocking again. Closely monitored, the ministry of health and municipalities seemed eager and determined to control those returning to the country and police the lockdown.
Lebanon has been facing its biggest political, social, and economic crisis over the past months. Under multiple political, economic, and regional factors, quotidian life in the country has undergone significant shifts as the nation seems to have lost its very post-colonial raison-d’etre. After protests forced the government to resign in October 2019, a new government of politically-backed ‘technocrats’ was formed and sought to quell the erupting revolution. Faced with the corona pandemic shortly after it came into power, the government scrambled to prove its aptitude and establish authority. Meanwhile, demonstrations were completely halted with the lockdown, as the priorities of many became centred around medical health and protection.
To a large extent, many have claimed that the government has remarkably succeeded. The numbers of coronavirus cases in the country, standing at 1161 infections, 692 recovered, and 26 deaths since the beginning of March with significant testing rates, evidences this. While not arguing against this, I would like to contend that the repatriation flights – hailed by many as another major achievement of the government – evidence the fragility and limitations of a performed authority.
At one level, the government’s affirmation of authority mainly repatriated those citizens who could afford expensive tickets, and who were based in countries with significant wealth. For example, students in Eastern Europe were mostly not repatriated. Lebanese in Africa, as some of the richest Lebanese expatriates in the world, were. This is despite the vast discrepancy in coronavirus cases between the two regions. Authority and citizenship were strongly classed, it appeared.
Secondly, the government’s newfound authority was mired in neoliberalism. In mid-May, with the third stage of repatriation, the government announced that it would completely outsource the management of repatriation flights to MEA. Immediately, the airline began to require all passengers from all countries to undergo PCR tests at their own expense. As all passengers will be tested, the airline claimed, physical distancing on planes will be scrapped and flights would be booked to their full capacity again. With seven daily flights scheduled for over twelve days in mid-May 2020, a steady flow of coronavirus patients, and no reaction from the government, authority stopped at the gates of neoliberal interests.
Further, in coordinating the expatriates’ quarantine process, the government fully relegated this to municipalities, mostly run by the country’s ruling political patrons. This celebrated authority, it appeared, could not materialise without being fragmented through the country’s governing elite. The vast differences reported by citizens, with some confirming that they were never contacted by anyone since their return, further reveal the unequal dwelling across the small Land and the centralised government’s inability to exert direct authority.
Ultimately, authority appears riddled with corruption, inefficiency, sterile measures, inequality, neoliberalism, and fragmentation. In this sense, little seems to be changing in Lebanon. While the pandemic exposed structural dysfunction, inequalities, and failures, in many parts of the world it seems to have offered the Lebanese state an opportunity to perform authority where its contradictions became further concealed.
Indeed, by halting the civil unrest that preceded it and by offering the government a rare opportunity to establish authority – one that it seems to have skilfully performed – COVID seems to be an omen of good for Lebanon’s fragile state and its capitalist oligarchic ruling elite. What will unfold post-pandemic, or as the pandemic lingers and exhausts the government’s performance, remain to be seen.
Ali M. Kassem is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His main interests are in Postcolonial and Decolonial theories, the Sociology of Islam and the Sociology of Knowledge.