One afternoon on March 24th, a man named Salim Khadduj set his car aflame after being fined for violating the one passenger per car measure that the Lebanese government implemented in the hopes of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Khadduj is a taxi driver, and his actions came as a product of frustration to what has been an incredibly difficult time for taxi drivers across the country. Dating back to the start of the economic crisis, these “service” drivers have endured several losses, and now with the measures that are being enforced to combat COVID-19, times are only getting worse.
Considered informal workers, taxi drivers are a labor force that make up about 55% of the Lebanese economy, a substantial percentage that has been deeply impacted by the lockdown measures. Implementing a curfew, restricting rides to one passenger per car, and coordinating driving days based on the number of each license plate are all initiatives that were executed in order to protect the greater good, but have unfortunately negatively impacted one of the country’s largest workforce. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the Lebanese currency has lost up to 60% of its initial value, a number that is likely to increase over time and more so amid a worsening economy. While the value of the Lebanese Lira is quickly depreciating, taxi drivers remain hesitant to increase ride fees in fear that they could lose customers, nevertheless, customer presence has still decreased. In an Al-Arabiya news article, a young and newlywed taxi driver shared that he spends two hours driving in circles and using up his gas without picking up any passengers. The frustration of the public transport community in Lebanon has rippled across the country, culminating in a protest staged by bus drivers in Tripoli to voice their discontent in the absence of any initiatives from the Lebanese government. There are no social safety nets for these people to fall back on, and so in such dire times, all eyes turn to those in power.
“We ask the rich to stand by the poor,” claimed a Tripoli resident interviewed by Al-Jazeera. Cries for help are echoing across the country. Under the framework of international human rights law, Lebanon is obligated to provide its citizens with essentials, such as adequate food and the highest attainable standards of living and health, but little has been done. In response to the implications that the lockdown has brought upon people, the government sent 400,000 L.L to families that are most in need, which equates to roughly $150 at the black market rate, a solution that barely makes a dent. The government is bankrupt, and with hopes of a solution lying contingent on the help of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank, the problem is likely to extend. Reports suggest that just over 30% of the population was living in absolute poverty in late 2019, and this number is expected to rise to half the population by the end of 2020. In the absence of a proper plan by the government, it is citizen-based initiatives that have been working to help and relieve the implications of quarantine measures. This includes the launch of a GoFundMe page for Khadduj after the incident of burning his car. It should not take a global pandemic to make the government understand that they should provide some form of safety net for the most vulnerable citizens, and it definitely should not be the responsibility of regular citizens to uphold the task that officials have shied away from.
To remain comfortable and unfazed during quarantine is a privilege that only a select few can enjoy because the reality is that, while some families may be able to stock up on food, many others are forced to go hungry. The fact of the matter is, however, that quarantining is the most viable option present to combat the spread of the virus, and even though it falls on the government to incentivize people to stay home, few legitimate measures have been implemented to protect those suffering the most. The people who are severely suffering from the implications of quarantine and the degrading economic crisis don’t want to go to work, they need to go to work. No one wants to risk their health and that of others by going out, but the absence of a social safety net has left many vulnerable, and as things stand, the situation is likely to get worse. These are truly unprecedented times, and while there have been great initiatives to combat the effects of the virus, the world has been brought to its knees for the time being. COVID-19 is currently at the wheel, and these taxi drivers, who were once in command of their vehicles, have now become the unfortunate passengers in a car that is quickly nearing a crash.