Fear and Law in the Age of Corona: Part IV

2021-02-08    |   

Fear and Law in the Age of Corona: Part IV
Illustration By Raed Charaf

It seemed far away in the beginning, that disease spreading eastward. We thought ourselves immune to its fangs. When the first cases were recorded in Lebanon in late February 2020, we were told, “There’s no reason to panic”. However, the epidemic became a pandemic, and panic spread through the country, infused with distrust in the government and state institutions.


In fact, the panic had begun months before the disease, when the national currency collapsed, the banks began withholding people’s money against their will, and the country revolted. When the first cases appeared, some private establishments preempted the governmental measures by closing voluntarily and asking their workers to stay home. Then, late on Sunday, March 8, the security forces closed the bars, restaurants, and cafes across Beirut as a preventative measure. “The revolution is done for”, a friend said to me that evening. Pre-COVID-19 Lebanon had been in revolutionary upheaval since 17 October 2019. How long ago that seems. “Who would dare join a protest after today?”, my friend wondered.


On March 15, exactly one week later, Hassan Diab’s government issued a decree declaring a general mobilization[1] based on the Contagious Diseases Law[2] and the Civil Defense Law.[3] It stipulated a series of measures to curb the spread of the disease, the most important being that citizens must stay home except for “utmost necessity”; a ban on all kinds of gatherings in public and private; the closure of all air, sea, and land ports; the closure of public and municipal administrations and institutions, independent departments, and governmental and private universities and schools except for a few to meet citizens’ needs; the suspension of work in all kinds of companies, private establishments, and shops; and the suspension of work in offices of free professionals except as deemed absolutely necessary for operation in coordination with the syndicates regulating these professions. Then, on March 21, the Prime Minister’s Office promptly issued the instructions for applying the decree.[4] Various security forces, including the army as well as internal, state and general security forces, as well as all municipalities and municipal unions, had to strictly implement the decree’s provisions and take the immediate measures needed to prosecute violators before the competent judicial authorities under Article 604 and Article 770 of the Penal Code.


While these measures accorded with the global trend toward a policy of “self-isolation”, staying home, and restricting movement – and their success in containing and limiting the spread of COVID-19 by “flattening the curve” was shown in preliminary studies – their harmful political, social, and livelihood repercussions quickly emerged. I addressed these repercussions and the government’s management of the health crisis in a series of critical articles titled “Fear and the Law in the Age of Corona”,[5] which were published in the months following the general mobilization declaration. This article evaluates the first year of COVID-19. I say “first” because [at the time of writing], all indications point to the virus staying with us for some time (contrary to the illusion of obtaining a safe and effective vaccine that magically eradicates it). By some predictions,[6] the second wave will peak in Lebanon between late December 2020 and early January 2021. Hence, we must investigate the lessons of the first year and how the management of the crisis could be improved to confront it comprehensively and sustainably.


What are the political, social, and livelihood consequences of the government’s measures to curb the spread of the disease? How were the measures utilized to normalize the construction of a police state? Conversely, how can COVID-19 be utilized to build a state based on social justice?


Utilizing COVID-19 to Normalize the Construction of a Police State


COVID-19 came months after the October 17 revolution broke out. The country was in upheaval, and the regime – in both its political and banking/financial branches – was on the edge of the abyss amid a complete lack of trust in it and the inevitable disconnect solidifying between it and the populace. Hence, COVID-19 and the panic it caused constituted an opportunity for the regime to re-extend its claws, and fortify its position, within society. By creating new social and health-related disciplinary rules and measures (of a moral nature) under the pretext of fighting the pandemic, the regime drew up its new architecture of subjugation while presenting itself as a shield from an invisible enemy per the formula “Aabandon your rights and I’ll save you from death”. This subjugation effort appeared in several places, the most prominent being the following:


  • The use of vague expressions, such as “staying home and not going out in public except for utmost necessity” and “banning all kinds of gatherings in private and public places”, in the general mobilization decrees. These expressions left much leeway for interpretation when applying the measures and hence for abuse and expansion, especially given the general mobilization decree’s recycling of punitive culture through the preventative measures via its reference to prosecuting violators under Article 604 of the Penal Code.[7] Ambiguity benefits the tyrant. Ministerial memorandums and decisions quickly followed one after another (regardless of their appropriateness or legality), transforming the disciplinary rules from a moral obligation into orders whose violators would be prosecuted and punished. Reference to the concept of utmost necessity was thereby gradually replaced by explicit bans on going out in public not necessarily justified by the need to preserve public health (such as the nighttime curfew and the odd-even traffic restrictions).[8]


  • The state agencies’ utilization of tattling culture, particularly via the circulation of a graphic resembling those used by the repressive fascist regimes of the 1930s and 1940s. The graphic showed a masked policeman in ISF uniform looking defiantly at the viewer and holding a sign saying, “For your sake and ours, report! [Call] 112 [police emergency line]” and “When you see any violation of the general mobilization decision, report immediately #StayHome”. This approach turns neighbors, friends, and family members into spies against each other, hostages to each other, and potential enemies of the supreme state project. Every citizen thereby becomes a police officer and the government’s omnipresent eye monitoring every corner.


  • The utilization of panic over the disease via the media. This occurred via collusion between the regime and some traditional media outlets that covered the issue ferociously. These outlets adopted a paternal, intimidating, and even incitive tone toward anyone not staying home, describing them as “brainless”[9] and demanding that the state agencies strictly enforce the aforementioned measures (despite their non-binding, moral nature in legal terms).


Part III of the series of articles on COVID-19 mentioned that, according to French philosopher Michel Foucault, disciplinary rules and measures (such as the general mobilization measures) ostensibly constitute a lower level of law (infra-droit) but are actually diametrically opposed to law (contre-droit). For while one of law’s fundamental functions is to redistribute authority by placing controls on its exercise, disciplinary rules flip the legal script and reestablish the rules of the more powerful party regarding  relations and its narrative about them. Hence, disciplinary rules replace legal truth with the truth of whoever is more powerful. This applies not only to private relations between individuals but also to political regimes’ relations with their peoples, especially amidst exceptional circumstances (such as COVID-19 today) and the exceptional measures needed to confront them. Exceptional circumstances constitute a unique opportunity for the regime as it can exploit them and gradually transform the measures adopted to address them into lasting measures that reshape its relationship with the people according to the rules that it – i.e. the more powerful party and, in our case, our supposed shield against the invisible enemy – defines.[10]


On this basis, and amidst the domination of COVID-19 panic over public debate, fundamental rights and freedoms are discarded. A person is reduced to their purely biological being in the name of implementing the new disciplinary rules to combat the pandemic, all in the absence of any public debate necessitated by the concept of democratic society. Movement is prohibited and privacy violated without any serious objection. On 27 March 2020, revolutionaries’ tents in downtown Beirut were even burnt down on the pretext of combating the pandemic, again without any serious objection. The event was a succinct material translation of the regime’s desire to show its power and authority over the revolution. The revolution is dead, it told us. There is no space for it in the age of COVID-19. Let the revolutionaries’ tents burn, along with rights and freedoms, because it is not their time. Rather, it is the time of the police regime and the disaster capitalism that accompanies it. Thus, the regime’s two branches – i.e. the political branch and the banking branch – colluded to normalize its new incarnation.


From one angle, the police state was normalized, as previously mentioned, without any serious social objection. This was reflected in the institutionalization of the militarization of disputes and crises in the country. For example, in the labor disputes, some employers did not hesitate to summon the armed forces (the riot police or Army) to confront the dismissed workers (as in the cases of the RAMCO workers[11] and the American University Hospital workers[12]). Likewise, following the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, the regime hastily declared a state of emergency even though it was pointless (particularly given the general mobilization, which was and still is in effect)[13] and then extended it twice even though the legal conditions were not met in a terrible contravention of the Constitution and law.[14]


From another angle, the mentality of disaster capitalism – i.e. of exploiting crises to push the governments managing them into adopting radical policies that often flout public interest to benefit a few financiers and powerful and influential people – flourished.[15] On this basis, the banking system’s tyrannical and anarchical withholding of depositors’ money without any legal basis (especially given the absence of a capital control law)[16] was also normalized, along with the accompanying effort by some influential people to smuggle their money abroad and its effect on the lira’s standing and the country’s economic and living conditions. Hence, limits on withdrawals (whether in lira or dollars), as well as obscene inflation without any oversight or controls, became givens that imposed themselves on our lives.


Conversely, the government’s measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 did not produce the results anticipated at the beginning of the health crisis. Here we are today facing the crest of the pandemic’s second wave, and the daily numbers of infections are still climbing (contrary to circumstantial fantasies). Why, then, were these governmental measures ineffective?


The Ineffectiveness of the Government’s Measures to Curb the Spread


In addition to the above, various other factors have also made the government’s measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 ineffective. The most important of these factors are the following:


  • That the standard measures to curb the pandemic were not adapted to the country’s local context. Primarily, the measures adopted failed to reconcile between the various imperatives, enshrining public health imperatives at the expense of livelihood and social imperatives on the basis that at this critical stage of Lebanon’s history, the right to life is paramount and everything else comes second. However, at that time, the country was already drowning in perhaps the greatest social and livelihood crisis in its history, from the lira’s historic deterioration to the staggering rise in mass layoffs that began in mid-2019 (layoffs estimated in the hundreds of thousands in late 2019 alone)[17] and the subsequent expansion of hotbeds of poverty in the country. Hence, the COVID-19 measures and the accompanying closure of establishments and markets without any serious rescue plan accelerated the collapse, becoming one of the driving factors and obstacles to overcoming it.


  • That prevention measures and guidelines were not made feasible for everyone. They seemed totally detached from the situation on the ground and hence remained theoretical in many respects. For example, despite the importance of wide-scale laboratory testing to track COVID-19 and quarantine those infected, these tests remained primarily a paid service, contrary to public health needs and the Contagious Diseases Law’s explicit stipulation that the government shoulder their costs (whether for people or for medical and non-medical equipment and supplies).[18] Moreover, these measures directly charged the populace with the responsibility of curbing the pandemic by asking them to “just stay home” in spite of the reality of living spaces and leases in Lebanon (in terms of access to adequate, spacious housing where residents can remain for long periods and practice social distancing, as well as access to free, unpolluted water with which to follow prevention guidelines per scientific recommendations).[19] On this basis, the official prevention measures and guidelines appeared feasible only for a small minority isolated from the common people by the privilege that they are drowning in.


  • Reports of errors in PCR test results, such as journalist Abby Sewell’s tweet showing a message from the Ministry of Public Health informing her that her test upon arrival at the airport came back negative when she had taken no such test. Such incidents, in the absence of any serious effort to explain them to the public, impacted the credibility of the government’s measures, shaking trust in the health authorities while some people were becoming increasingly convinced that COVID-19 did not exist in their regions (or even at all).[20]


  • The contradiction between the behavior of ruling class figures and their aides and the preventative measures that they preach. Some have appeared in public places and spaces without masks and in total contempt of social distancing rules. One such incident was Minister of Public Health Hamad Hasan’s participation in a “Corona Debka” in Baalbek last June.


  • The scarcity of information about the national plan to combat the pandemic and the absence of any public debate about it, which left important questions unanswered. For example, on what basis are some areas locked down and not others? Is this decision based on the infected people’s actual places of residence or the places listed in their civil records, as reported by some media?[21] In what context did the infection occur? What spaces (such as the workplace, the supermarket, and shared transportation) are most liable to spread infection and must be investigated so that the appropriate decisions regarding closing or regulating access to them can be made?[22] In the absence of such information from public debate, the government’s decisions on COVID-19 appeared arbitrary and unjustified.[23] Consequently, these measures were more akin to an “imposed law”, evoking negative reactions that occasionally culminated in signs of civil disobedience to their application both by individuals and certain sectors.[24]


This is the effect of law imposed without public debate. While the exigencies of the right to life initially justified the radicalism of the measures, it quickly became evident that they were unsustainable. COVID-19 did not disappear by virtue of these measures, and it clearly will not disappear from our lives any time soon.


Toward Curbing the Pandemic Sustainably and Utilizing It to Build a Social Justice State


In conjunction with the above and given the critical historical juncture through which the country is passing on the political, livelihood, social, and health levels, it is very important to build the foundations of any state aspiring to social justice on bases that promote social dialogue and public debate about all the various issues facing its citizens. These principles serve a key function in a democratic society, namely allowing it to reach consensual, sustainable decisions that respect the principles of social solidarity, far removed from political exploitation of panic and from the culture of “imposed law” and its repercussions.


Hence, a series of measures can be taken today to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a manner that is sustainable and consistent with the various aforementioned livelihood imperatives, provided that the Lebanese state properly allocates its funds and capacities:


– Regarding prevention: enable the populace to take free tests and intensively distribute means of prevention free of charge, as stipulated by the 1957 law.


– Regarding the general mobilization:

  • Create facilities to quarantine infected people and their contacts by reallocating some of the country’s empty buildings and hotels, which can be done without cost to the state given the exceptional circumstances and pursuant to their owners’ obligation to show solidarity during national crises. The state can seize establishments or require them to perform services under the provisions of the general mobilization.
  • On the same basis, call upon all medical students and trainees in Lebanon to volunteer in order to concert efforts and capacities to curb the spread of the disease and provide comprehensive healthcare on a wide scale.


– Regarding livelihood:

  • Promptly adopt a comprehensive housing policy. The state should also intervene to control rent prices and place limits on them in keeping with the current situation for the sake of upholding the right to housing.
  • Adopt a comprehensive rescue plan to support workers who lost their jobs or whose wages have been reduced, in line with what the Legal Agenda and Lebanese Labor Watch have demanded since December 2019.[25] Additionally, strengthen protection for workers in essential jobs (which emerged, in particular, during the country’s total lockdown), especially by raising the minimum wage and ensuring a safe work environment that promotes prevention and occupational health and safety, pursuant to Decree no. 11802.[26]
  • Compel banks, money transfer companies, and money exchanges to open daily. The legislature should also intervene to put an end to these institutions’ arbitrary placement of illegal limits on withdrawals and manipulation of the exchange rate.
  • On the scientific level, allocate funds and provide a conducive environment to encourage innovation and scientific and medical research in Lebanon such that the Lebanese state contributes, like other states, to the creation of scientific and medical solutions to combat the disease instead of standing in wait for a solution from abroad.


– Regarding urban planning, the pandemic and the resulting preventative measures have raised many issues concerning our relationship with the various spaces with which we live.[27] The most important steps to take in this regard are the following:

  • Revise housing design in a manner that allows isolation for long periods and social distancing between residents of a single housing unit, which entails access to adequate housing close to basic services, public spaces, and the workplace.
  • Review public spaces and the populace’s access to them. This requires working to increase these spaces (especially green spaces) near all urban neighborhoods and making them accessible and safe for everyone so that people can leave their homes and mingle responsibly and safely in accordance with prevention guidelines.
  • Revise workplace design to be safer for workers whose jobs require them to be present and even to limit the need for remote work (by, for example, reducing workroom crowding or creating individual workrooms), which can undermine team spirit and obstruct the intellectual exchanges emerging by chance and from daily discussions in the workplace.


COVID-19 will cease dominating our lives one day, as diseases come and go. However, the choices we make today will determine how quickly we recover from it and the burden of its repercussions, which we will live with after the pandemic subsides. While the regime has utilized the pandemic to construct its police state, we can, on our part, stand up against it and utilize COVID-19 to build the social justice state to which we aspire.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Decree no. 6198/2020, published in the Official Gazette on 19 March 2020.

[2] Issued in 1957.

[3] Issued via Legislative Decree no. 102/1983.

[4] Decision no. 49/2020.

[5] Part I was published in Arabic on the Legal Agenda’s website on 14 March 2020 under the title “al-Hala’ wa-l-Qanun fi Zaman Corona” [Fear and the Law in the Age of Corona]. Part II was published in Arabic on 25 March 2020 and subsequently in English under the title “Fear and the Law in the Time of Corona: What is to be Done?”. Part III was published in Arabic on 15 April 2020 under the title “Handasat Nizam Corona” [The Architecture of the Corona Regime].

[6] See The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) website.

[7] The reference to Article 604 was inappropriate because its legal conditions are not met in such a case. The article punishes “whoever causes, due to imprudence, negligence, or disregard of laws or regulations, the spread of an infectious human disease”. Hence, it requires that the perpetrator contribute to the spread of an infectious disease, i.e. that their action led directly to the infection of other people, and certainly not just departure from the home in contravention of the isolation policy (even if contact with other people occurred). Otherwise, the result would be the inversion of criminal law principles such that a person is “guilty until proven innocent” without a need for any social harm to arise from the act of leaving the home.

[8] Karim Nammour, “Wazir al-Dakhiliyya Yata’assafu fi Isti’mal Sultatihi Mustaghillan Corona”, The Legal Agenda, 5 April 2020.

[9] See “al-I’lam wa-l-Sulta fi Lubnan”, episode 20, season 2, the Legal Agenda’s Qanuni Podcast, featuring journalist Khaled Saghieh.

[10] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Gallimard, 1975.

[11] Laure Ayoub, “Taswiya Juz’iyya Anhat Idrab ‘Ummal RAMCO”, The Legal Agenda, 1 June 2020.

[12] See “Qadiyyat ‘Ummal al-AUB wa-Waba’ al-Sarf fi Lubnan”, episode 26, season 2, the Legal Agenda’s Qanuni Podcast, featuring a discussion between Youmna Makhlouf, Karim Nammour, Nizar Hariri, and Ahmad Dirani.

[13] Karim Nammour, “al-Tha’r li-Bayrut wa-li-Sukkaniha”, The Legal Agenda, 9 August 2020.

[14] Wissam El-Lahham, “Bayrut tahta al-Tawari’ hatta Ahkir 2020: Kharq li-l-Dustur wa-l-Qanun ma’a al-Israr wa-l-Ta’kid”, The Legal Agenda, 25 September 2020.

[15] See part III of the series of articles on COVID-19, as well as Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Knopf Canada, 2007.

[16] Karim Nammour, “Kayfa Nusqitu Satw al-Masarif ‘ala Yawmiyyatina fi Lubnan?”, The Legal Agenda, 7 January 2020.

[17] “Nahwa I’lan Halat Tawari’ li-Haqq al-‘Amal fi Lubnan”, The Legal Agenda, 10 December 2019.

[18] Contagious Disease Law, issued 31 December 1957.

[19] See “al-Bayt wa-l-Madina fi Zaman Corona”, episode 9, season 2, the Legal Agenda’s Qanuni Podcast.

[20] Marc Ghazali, “Tripoli’s Clientelism in the Age of Corona”, The Legal Agenda, 8 December 2020.

[21] Timour Azhari, “Lebanon’s COVID-19 Surge: What Went Wrong?”, Al Jazeera English, 8 October 2020.

[22] “Towards a Zero-COVID Lebanon: A Call for Action”, Arab Reform Initiative, 5 October 2020.

[23] This is especially true in light of the utilization of COVID-19 to build a police state, as previously explained.

[24] See, for example, the actions of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night-Clubs & Pastries.

[25] “Nahwa I’lan Halat Tawari’ li-Haqq al-‘Amal fi Lubnan”, op. cit.

[26] Issued on 30 January 2004 and regulating occupational prevention, health, and safety in all establishments subject to the Labor Code.

[27] Kyle Chayka, “How the Coronavirus Will Reshape Architecture”, The New Yorker, 17 June 2020.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Decree, Economy, Industry and Agriculture, Freedom of Movement, Labor Rights and Unions, Lebanon, Right to Health, Security Agencies

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *