BSHARRI, Lebanon — When Lebanon reported its first coronavirus infection in February, the case was a woman who had come from the Muslim holy city of Qom in Iran, which was rapidly becoming the epicenter of the epidemic in the Middle East.
Iran has long been a factor in Lebanon’s highly sectarian politics, and many Lebanese were quick to cast blame on Iran and local Shiite Muslims for Lebanon’s widening outbreak. Avoid Shiite villages and areas, some urged.
So when, weeks later, it emerged that the largest cluster of coronavirus cases in the country was actually in the insular Christian hamlet of Bsharri in the mountains above Beirut, the irony was not lost on many in Lebanon. Bsharri is known for its devout Maronite Christian inhabitants and as a bastion of right-wing Christian militiamen during the country’s long civil war.
Bsharri is also famous for being beautiful. It is widely celebrated for its cedar trees, some of the oldest in the world — called the “Cedars of God” — and the national emblem of Lebanon. Below the town’s newly inaugurated government hospital perched atop a hill extends a lush valley. Streams, waterfalls and water springs abound, filling the silence with a permanent gurgling. Mountains, both green and snow-capped, encircle the town, giving an impression of nature-mandated isolation.
Today, however, the isolation is government imposed. Bsharri is the only town in Lebanon to have been placed under complete quarantine, after 24 cases of the coronavirus were recorded in a 24-hour period early this month. About 70 of the town’s 5,500 residents have now contracted the virus, around 10 percent of all the cases in the country.
The government has closed off the surrounding Bsharri district, which includes 22 towns and villages, allowing only supplies and police and other official personnel in and out. The emptied streets in the picturesque town look like an abandoned Hollywood set.
Residents are not permitted out of their homes except individually to go shopping. A rotation has been set for restaurants so one is open each day to feed hospital staff and policemen. Policemen are stationed outside markets to limit crowding. “You either wear the mask or quit,” one growled at a grocer.
A sectarian struggle
Lebanon continues to struggle with the religious differences that have long divided it, at times violently, and religious affiliations that define so much of the country’s politics.
The mountains extending north of the capital Beirut are mainly populated by Christians, while the northernmost part of the country is majority Sunni Muslim. Shiites dominate in the south and the northeast of the country and are the base of support for the militant Hezbollah group, backed by Iran.
Top political posts are assigned based on religion, and sectarianism plays a role in the access to public goods and services and availability of jobs, which are becoming ever scarcer as the country struggles with its worst economic crisis in a generation.
Though some Lebanese protested that the coronavirus has no sect, it was perhaps no surprise that the outbreak would also be widely viewed through a sectarian lens, especially given the size of the epidemic in Iran.
“It is as if what Iran already bestows upon Lebanon and the Lebanese isn’t enough,” a newscaster sarcastically began his news segment after Lebanon reported its first case of the virus. “So now it has sent us corona to finish its good deeds. Thank you, Iran.”
Hezbollah’s television channel responded, calling the sectarian attacks “an amoral pandemic that is also difficult to cure.”
When the Hezbollah-aligned health minister recommended isolating two predominantly Christian areas, a member of parliament from one of the areas angrily tweeted, asking the minister to explain rumors about a hospital in a Shiite part of Beirut instead of “deeming our area infested.”
Hezbollah’s response to the uproar was swift, dispatching trucks to spray its areas with disinfectant and enlisting volunteers to stand outside villages, taking temperatures. “The battle against the corona pandemic is a human battle, and does not have a religious, political, or racial affiliation,” said Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, in a speech.
These steps contained the spread of the epidemic in Shiite areas, while public health measures elsewhere in the country were less aggressive.
“The direct political pressure was ugly, because they only shed the spotlight on those coming from Iran,” said a senior doctor at one of the country’s leading hospitals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “But in other communities, because those coming from Italy and Egypt and the United Kingdom were not treated with the same scientific approach … what happened, happened.”
The result is reflected in a map issued by the health ministry depicting the spread of the virus across the country. The majority-Christian areas north of Beirut are colored in various shades of blues indicating higher case numbers.
Life under quarantine
The first two confirmed cases in Bsharri were doctors in the town’s hospital, according to Mayor Freddy Kairouz, but no one’s saying where they caught the virus.
Antoine Geagea, the hospital’s chief executive, says health authorities have a pretty good idea who imported it into Bsharri but wouldn’t disclose the individual’s identity, saying it could expose that person to retribution or ridicule.
As news of the Bsharri outbreak spread, the government announced the new containment measures. Food parcels were sent to those in need. Bsharri natives residing elsewhere donated money for virus tests, and district officials began conducting rapid random testing.
“We took the decision to attack the virus,” Kairouz said. “We decided to shut down the area and do mass tests.” He added that more than 11 percent of residents have been tested so far and this wide net may help explain why so many cases have been detected locally.
The decision to shut the town during Easter was not an easy one.
“It’s annoying, and it’s boring,” said Amal Geagea, a sprightly resident. She still sees her son, who lives down the street, but not her daughter, who lives elsewhere in the district. Her only excursion out is to the grocery store.
“I haven’t left the house in two, three weeks; I came out today to get some bread,” said Therese al-Khoury, 76, while shopping for her canned tuna dinner. “I only leave when it’s necessary.”
Police have been posted at checkpoints outside the district’s population centers to curtail travel.
During a recent visit by Washington Post journalists, a police officer forced one driver to retreat. “He wanted to go on a joyride with his friend. Can you imagine the audacity?” the officer said, shaking his head.
A little earlier, the town’s silence had been broken as an ambulance raced through the streets, pulling up at a hospital directly across from the childhood home of Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. An old man was taken in on a stretcher, one of two new cases that day.
Father Charbel Makhlouf has been live-streaming sermons to his parish via Facebook. “It’s a spiritual meeting: You are doing a new strong test [to your faith].” His voice echoed in his large, beautiful church, completely empty. Outside, a recently printed sign: “Please keep a meter and a half between the believers.”
Makhlouf has found strength in a bible passage he sends every morning to his bible study group via messaging app WhatsApp. “Whenever I hold back the rain or send locusts to eat up the crops or send an epidemic on my people,” he read from a worn piece of paper, “if they pray to me and repent and turn away from the evil they have been doing, then I will hear them in heaven, forgive their sins, and make their land prosperous again.”
Others in town are also turning to their faith.
“We’re at the edge of the world, and God is protecting us,” said a local butcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he also works as a police officer. But when he thought about the economic crisis that could follow the epidemic, he turned glum.
“After corona, we’ll have famine,” he said.
Suzan Haidamous contributed reporting. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Allison Mann. Copy-editing by Jamie Zega.