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Lebanon’s double agony

International | The coronavirus pandemic intensifies economic woes
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 5/01/20, 04:00 pm

On Tuesday night, protesters in Sidon, Lebanon, broke into a bank and set it on fire while singing. Demonstrators chanting “revolution” also tossed Molotov cocktails at a local central bank branch. The crowd cheered each time they hit their target. Protesters broke curfew to inflict similar destruction in Tripoli, Beirut, and Nabatieh.

Demonstrations that began in October 2019 resurged across the country this week as the coronavirus pandemic worsens Lebanon’s economic troubles and its new government scrambles for a solution. Violence escalated in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city, after a protester died on Tuesday. The military expressed regret over the killing but didn’t take responsibility. Paramedics with the Lebanese Red Cross treated at least 22 people for injuries and evacuated four others to hospitals.

The uproar began when the government last fall proposed taxing WhatsApp and other internet messaging apps. It quickly grew into unprecedented calls for anti-corruption enforcement, improved public services, and a new government. Saad Hariri stepped down as prime minister, and former Education Minister Hassan Diab took over the task of forming a new government in January.

But the country’s import-dependent economy continued to decline. Lebanon’s currency, the Lebanese pound, has lost more than half its value since October and traded at 4,000 pounds to the U.S. dollar this week.

Coronavirus-related shutdowns have pushed even more people out of work, intensifying the protests, with demonstrators targeting banks that cut off access to their deposits. A taxi driver set fire to his car after officials fined him for breaking lockdown restrictions. A street vendor scattered his wooden table of produce and yelled after security officials asked him to pack up and leave.

“What you’re seeing is a result of accumulated problems,” Abdelaziz Sarkousi, a 47-year-old protester, said. “We had a revolution, people were suffering, then came corona, and people were locked in their homes for a month and a half without the state securing food and drink or anything else for them.”

France has said it will organize international support for Lebanon as soon as the outbreak restrictions are lifted. The United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, tweeted that the ongoing violence should serve as a caution for the country’s political leaders: “This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese all around the country.”

Associated Press/Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui (file) Associated Press/Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui (file) People wait in line to buy bread in Dakar, Senegal

Pandemic innovation

A Senegalese research lab is developing a $1 coronavirus testing kit that only takes about 10 minutes to determine results.

The Institut Pasteur de Dakar formed a partnership with U.K. biotech firm Mologic to redesign a kit originally used for dengue fever that includes a saliva-based virus antigen test and a blood-based antibody test. A line appears on the device if the patient is positive. Trials are currently underway, and scientists hope to release it publicly by June.

“There’s no need for a highly equipped lab,” Dr. Amadou Sall, one of the researchers involved in the project, told Al Jazeera. He hopes the project can produce 2 million to 4 million kits for African countries.

Engineers in Senegal also are using 3D printers to make ventilators. The country of about 16 million people currently has only 50 available. The new machines cost about $60, while imported ones cost $16,000.

Senegal has a limited health budget, but innovation seems to be working: The country as of Friday afternoon has recorded more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19, just nine deaths, and 356 recoveries—the highest recovery rate on the continent. —O.O.

Associated Press/Photo by Maya Alleruzzo (file) Associated Press/Photo by Maya Alleruzzo (file) Samera al-Huri in her home near Cairo

Dangerous activism

In Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, women who engage in politics or activism face kidnapping, torture, and rape in secret detention centers, according to human rights activists and survivors.

In the governorate of Sanaa, human rights groups estimate Houthi rebels have detained between 200 to 350 women. Samera al-Huri said rebels abducted her in July 2019 after she refused to provide information about other activists. Her captors held her in a converted school basement, where they beat, shocked, and psychologically tortured her for three months. She later confessed to false charges of prostitution. “Many had it worse than me,” al-Huri said.

In another case, a history teacher abducted in 2017 said masked male guards pulled out her toenails and took turns raping her. Noura al-Jarwi with the nonprofit group Women for Peace in Yemen has recorded 33 cases of rape and eight instances of debilitating torture of women.

The Houthis’ human rights minister denied the torture reports and the existence of the women’s prisons. —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Saudi Press Agency Associated Press/Saudi Press Agency Saudi King Salman

Saudi Arabia makes partial reforms

King Salman issued a decree last week ending Saudi Arabia’s death penalty for prisoners convicted as minors. The kingdom’s Supreme Court also ordered a stop to public flogging.

Although both announcements apply broadly, Human Rights Watch learned the reforms exclude serious crimes with prescribed penalties under Islamic law.

“While positive, these changes don’t go far enough to protect children from major flaws in Saudi Arabia’s notorious criminal justice system, including the risk of torture, unfair trials, and the death penalty,” said Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director.

Saudi Arabia used the death penalty on 184 people in 2019, more than any other country. In April, the country executed Abdulkareem al-Hawaj for participating in anti-government protests when he was 16. —J.A.S.

Reunited

Prominent human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang hugged his sobbing wife and son in Beijing on Monday, three weeks after Chinese authorities released him from prison.

“I feel like I’m dreaming, really,” his wife, Li Wenzu, said in a video posted on social media. “How many times have I imagined this moment, this scene?”

Wang was one of more than 200 lawyers and activists the Chinese government swept up on July 9, 2015, in what commonly is known as the “709 crackdown.” A Chinese court sentenced him in January 2019 for subverting state power. Authorities initially released him on April 5 but took him to his hometown in Shandong province for a two-week quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic. He remained there under strict surveillance until his reunion with family on Monday. —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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