When it comes to the coronavirus, the ministers are completely aware of the need to act quickly, as every hour counts. According to ministerial sources, the adopted plan will be implemented in two phases. The first phase will take place between April 5 and April 12 and the second between April 27 and May 4. The intention is to implement the first phase, then wait two weeks to study the epidemic curve in order to be able to deal with any possible gaps in the plan.
The sources explained that a specific mechanism will be adopted. First of all, Lebanese embassies will call on Lebanese living abroad and wishing to return to their homeland to register their names. Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti has asked two weeks ago the embassies abroad to start advising Lebanese who want to be repatriated to respect confinement measures where they are. Those who want to return will have to fill out specific forms describing among others the reasons for their stay abroad and their health condition. According to the ministerial sources, about 22,000 people have already registered their names, but the repatriation plan will start with "a first wave" of 10,000 expatriates.
Those who have registered their names will have to undergo a quick test for the coronavirus to determine whether they were infected. Then, they will be divided into two groups: those who are infected and those who are not. It should be noted that the expatriates wishing to return will be subjected to quick “antibody and antigen” tests (which are able to detect antibodies to determine whether an individual has been exposed to the virus and not if he is sick right now), because Lebanon does not have enough PCR tests (conventional tests which take several hours to provide results).
The government will then charter planes, one for the sick and one for the healthy. The plane that will transport people infected with the virus should carry special equipment and have a medical team on board, noting that Middle East Airlines (MEA) will handle negotiations with the airports of the countries concerned in order to obtain the necessary authorizations for take-offs.
Those who test negative and board the plane should leave an empty seat between them and wear surgical masks throughout the flight. General Security agents will also be present and will ensure that the passengers sign a document whereby they undertake to comply with the instructions. A diplomat from the Lebanese embassy of the country concerned will supervise the boarding of the passengers. Once in Beirut, the passengers will be separated: those who are in good health and those who have (health) problems prior to the coronavirus outbreak. All passengers will then be re-tested. Those suspected of being infected with the virus will be taken to hospitals, the others will have to respect confinement instructions, some at home and others in places prepared for this purpose in all Lebanese districts. Each healthy passenger will be greeted by only one person who will be picking him up from the airport. The Interior Security Forces will arrange transportation for any group of passengers.
The plan, which came in response to pressing demands by House Speaker Nabih Berri and a number of political parties, was designed to allow expatriates return home without endangering the lives of the local residents. The plan also takes into account the risks and calls for extreme caution.
Since the treasury coffers are practically empty, the passengers themselves will cover all related costs while local banks were asked to facilitate transfers. The sources, however, noted a real sense of solidarity, as some Lebanese living abroad have offered to help those who cannot afford to pay their flight tickets.
However, there remains a risk that those who return may not strictly comply with the confinement instructions. The plan provides for medical monitoring by hospitals, under the supervision of the Ministry of Health, to verify that confinement instructions are indeed respected; for the Lebanese are known for their unruly behavior.
It is for this reason that the government had some reservations concerning a massive repatriation, but without ever questioning the right of the Lebanese living abroad to return to their country.
The government handled the coronavirus crisis by putting in place a two-phased plan. First, it closed the land, air and sea borders for two weeks (from March 14 to 29) to end contamination from abroad. It moreover gave those who wanted to return a 4-day deadline to decide before the airport closed on the evening of March 18. Then came the extension of the "general mobilization" for two more weeks, with strict containment measures, to help limit the spread of the virus and flatten the curve of the coronavirus infection.
That is why when the Speaker of the Parliament raised the issue of repatriating the expatriates, PM Hassan Diab had replied: Not before April 12, when the extended containment measures expire. But Diab had to change his position, given the importance of the issue, while trying to take all measures that would keep as much as possible the spread of the virus under control. This government is taking on a new challenge, by relying on the cooperation of the Lebanese. The ministerial committee is scheduled to meet again on Thursday April 2nd to set the timetable and practical details of the expatriates' return.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 1rst of April)
The government of Hassan Diab has overcome its first serious challenge by adopting during a meeting on March 31 a plan to repatriate Lebanese expatriates who wish to return home. The plan was drafted by a ministerial committee, made up of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Zeina Acar, Foreign Affairs Minister Nassif Hitti, Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi, Health Minister Hamad...