Lebanon, already grappling with economic crisis, now faces coronavirus shutdown

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Beirut’s usually congested streets were largely free of cars and pedestrians stayed away from its seafront Corniche as government measures to curb the spread of coronavirus took effect with varying degrees of success on Monday.

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Police ordered closed several shops that were open in Beirut in violation of the shutdown order, and a group of swimmers were cleared from the beach in the southern city of Sidon, Reuters journalists said.

The government declared a medical state of emergency on Sunday, announcing a shutdown that included most public institutions and private companies as it looks to rein in the virus that has infected 109 people.

It also ordered the closure of borders, ports and airport from March 18-29 and said Lebanese are obliged to remain at home except for matters of “extreme necessity”.

Beirut traffic was unusually light on typically heavily congested roads.

A security official said compliance with the government decision was still lacking, noting that some people had no choice but to go to work.

“The traffic is definitely less but there are still cars in the streets,” he said “There are awareness campaigns but they are not reaching all parts of society”.

A security source said security forces were acting to disperse gatherings of people. Police cleared people off the Corniche, where some were walking wearing facemasks and surgical gloves.

“These two weeks are the most dangerous,” Health Minister Hamad Hassan said, according to Lebanese broadcaster al-Manar.

Lebanon is already grappling with a financial and economic crisis.

Addressing a news conference after an emergency cabinet session, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the steps would “no doubt” impact the economy but “people’s lives and health are more precious”.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis and Issam Abdallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan