It is a lesson in Lebanese politics to track Hezbollah’s multiple layers of tactics and strategies focused on one goal – preventing the Lebanese state from undertaking actions that challenge its interests. Among the sectarian groups in Lebanon, Hezbollah stands out as the most consistent and rigorous adherent of maintaining its influence over the others whether by rallying its allies in Parliament to control legislation and government initiatives, bringing its thugs out into the streets to combat demonstrators, or simply reminding opponents of the fate of previous leaders perceived as obstacles to their leadership.
While the list of its contributions are often referenced by its non-Shia supporters, for example, protecting Christian villages in Syria against ISIS, providing basic services to underserved communities in the south and the southern suburbs of Beirut, and repeating popular slogans against corruption and malfeasance, Hezbollah still operates through mechanism neither mandated by or under the control of the government, even if it still points to its legitimacy as the face of the “resistance.” Its commitment to reform is undermined by its opposition to an IMF bailout which would expose its dealings and manipulations of the economy along with those of their allies.
Lately, there have been reports from various sources in the US and Lebanon that even after Beirut International Airport was closed, flights from Iran were permitted in carrying both Iranians and Lebanese who had been in Iran, many to the holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent numbers in Iran are 2,640 amid 38,309 confirmed cases as of March 28. This is one of the highest mortality rates worldwide.
It is ironic that in the last two governments, Hezbollah has insisted on naming the Minister of Health, which could be both a liability and a shrewd move if the government moves effectively to assist the country as opposed to serving only select constituencies. Health officials warned that “Lebanon’s confirmed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tally jumped to 412 on March 28, [with 21 deaths] prompting one medical expert to warn the country faces its peak infection rate next week.” At that time, “398 suspected coronavirus cases have been transferred to the hospital and 995 cases remain in quarantine.”
So far, the government is emphasizing home quarantine as the first line of defense, based on the results in other countries. The LAF and security services are enforcing a 7pm – 5am curfew and are issuing public warnings against any gatherings. The UNHCR has asked Syrian refugees to stay in their homes and that it will “cover the treatment of any Syrian who is infected.” Industry Minister Imad Hoballah said that factories making medicines, food and basic materials can work at full capacity beginning March 30 to help meet the demand for essential consumer goods.
According to Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, head of the Shi'ite group's executive council, it is deploying 1,500 doctors, 3,000 nurses and paramedics, and 20,000 more volunteers in itsresponse to the pandemic. Hezbollah has mobilized its resources to “complement the government apparatus and not to stand in its place," he said, adding that Hezbollah had dedicated a Beirut hospital it owns to treating coronavirus patients, rented four disused hospitals, prepared 32 medical centers across Lebanon and laid plans for three field hospitals if needed. It has also rented hotels to be used for quarantine.
Given its mobilization efforts and its effective control over the Ministry of Health, one has to wonder how public health services will be allocated to the rest of the population in areas beyond Hezbollah’s control. Without a central authority to rationalize and allocate resources and facilities across the country, existing shortages of supplies, equipment, and personnel will only become more severe and damaging to the country writ large and erode further the central government’s credibility. It is another challenge on top of the economic, fiscal, and political issues that PM Diab and his team will have to manage effectively if the government is to survive the economic meltdown and the pandemic.