How much can a people take? That was what many around the world must have thought on watching footage of the vast explosion rip through Beirut earlier this week. How could one not?
Lebanon, as my colleague Ido Vock wrote after the event, was already mired in its worst economic crisis for decades; in March, for the first time in history, the country defaulted on its debt. Then came the global coronavirus pandemic, with its ensuing fears of famine and of unemployment climbing to as high as 70 percent. On 3 August, the day before the blast, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Lebanon’s people are being robbed of basic rights every day while politicians squabble over the size of the country’s financial losses and hamper efforts at reform,” the NGO’s Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said.
It was against this background that Beirut, the country’s capital and its largest city, was literally shaken to its core. On 4 August, an explosion went off at the city’s port. At least 154 people were killed and thousands injured. Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, has said the explosion caused between $3bn and $5bn worth of damage.
According to Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab, the blast was linked to roughly 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in a warehouse for the past six years without proper safety measures.
The world responded. Israel, which does not have diplomatic relations with Lebanon and which Lebanon does not recognise, offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian aid and “immediate emergency assistance via third party channels”. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai ordered City Hall to be lit up with the Lebanese flag, much to the ire of Yair Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s son, who falsely claimed the gesture was criminal.
British prime minister Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom was ready to help in any way. Qatar has begun sending field hospitals.
French president Emmanuel Macron said his country was sending resources. He then went to Beirut, assuring one woman who complained to him about her government; “I’m not here to help them, I’m here to help you.” The French president also promised a “new political pact” for Lebanon. Meanwhile, more than 55,000 signed a petition reportedly started by Lebanese citizens to place the country under a French mandate once again.
In recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic has swept the globe, we have become familiar with people being described as heroes, as my colleague Sophie McBain discussed in her piece on the science of heroism. We have transformed shop workers, nurses, doctors, delivery drivers and farm labourers into saviours by virtue of the fact that they have been sent on to front lines, often without necessary support. And they have done their jobs to the best of their abilities, holding society together in the process.
Yet just because they’ve risen to the occasion, that doesn’t make the occasion fair: “are we allowing self-serving gratitude to detract from efforts to address the government failures and long-standing social injustices that put so many workers at risk?” Sophie writes.
And this caution applies also to Beirut. Because as striking as the images of Macron were, the most dramatic response to the disaster is coming from the city’s people, who have pulled together to clean and repair their broken home – taking on the duties of care and responsibility that their government had neglected.
That people around the world continue to take on more and more doesn’t mean they should have to. That they have is heroic; it is also a tragedy.