(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Protesters paralyze Lebanon amid political, economic crisis

BEIRUT (AP) — Protesters closed all major roads leading to the Lebanese capital on Monday, causing traffic jams and triggering a call by the head of the hospitals union who warned that such moves are preventing oxygen supplies from reaching medical centres treating coronavirus patients.

The dayslong protests come against the backdrop of a crash in the local currency, increase of consumer goods prices and political bickering between rival groups that has delayed the formation of a new government.

Since the early morning hours, small groups of demonstrators blocked the southern, northern and eastern entrances to Beirut with burning tires and by parking vehicles on the main roads. In other parts of Lebanon, army soldiers briefly opened some roads only to have protesters close them again shortly afterward.

Sleiman Haroun, President of the Syndicate of Hospitals in Lebanon, told The Associated Press that after a two-day weekend when there is no oxygen distribution, some hospitals are running low and urgently need supplies, especially to treat COVID-19 patients.

“This is not a joke. It is a matter of life and death,” Haroun said urging protesters to allow vehicles carrying supplies of oxygen to pass. There are several oxygen plants around Lebanon and they supply hospitals throughout the country, including some in remote areas.

Despite a weekslong lockdown in Lebanon, cases of coronavirus remain high in the tiny country, with 2,377 new cases registered on Sunday, raising the total cases since February last year to more than 395,000. The virus has also killed 5,047 people, including 33 on Sunday.

On Saturday, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned that the country was quickly headed toward chaos and appealed to politicians to put aside their differences in order to form a new government that can attract desperately needed foreign assistance.

In October, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was named to form a new Cabinet but five months later, disagreements between him and President Michel Aoun on the shape of the Cabinet has stood in the way of a new government’s formation.

The local currency hit a record law against the U.S. dollar on Saturday getting to close to 11,000 pounds on the black market.

Lebanon has been hit by one crisis after another, starting with nationwide protests in October 2019 that revealed a severe financial and economic crisis. The situation was made worse by coronavirus and a massive blast at Beirut’s port in August that killed 211, wounded more than 6,000 and damaged large parts of Beirut.

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