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VIRUS DIARY: An unfamiliar war for those who live with war

In this March 28, 2020, photo, people stand in a line outside a bank in Beirut, Lebanon, amid a financial crisis and a lockdown imposed by the government to help stem the spread of the coronavirus in Lebanon. (AP Photo/Zeina Karam)
In this March 28, 2020, photo, people stand in a line outside a bank in Beirut, Lebanon, amid a financial crisis and a lockdown imposed by the government to help stem the spread of the coronavirus in Lebanon. (AP Photo/Zeina Karam)

BEIRUT – I’ve seen the streets of Beirut empty before, during wars when the shells were falling and under curfews after various bouts of fighting. But it is the silence that is getting to me.

On the streets, at the supermarket, and even as people stand in line (one meter apart) outside banks and grocery stores, no one speaks. It seems like every single person is wearing a mask and gloves, even those inside their cars, driving alone.

Exactly how did we get here, and how will we get out? It’s the same question everyone is asking, bewildered at the sea change that has come over our lives.

It was only weeks earlier that my colleagues and I were covering massive anti-government protests in a square just down the road from our office. As protest movements tend to go, they began with euphoric demonstrators thronging the streets and ended with tear gas and batons snuffing out the calls for change.

Then came more uncertainty. The financial crisis. The mass layoffs and the realization that people’s savings will probably evaporate.

Then, the coronavirus. First schools closed, then restaurants and cafes. Then — overnight, it seemed — we were locked in our homes. Police now hand out tickets to offenders for simply walking on the sidewalk by the sea. The other day a military helicopter flew low over the city, booming orders for residents to stay indoors.

I drove to the office after two weeks of working from home. It felt a bit like driving to work at 6 a.m. back when Israel was bombing highways and bridges in 2006, during the monthlong war with Hezbollah. Only few cars on the road, speeding to their destinations. Shuttered shops. Fear. Emptiness.

Downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, only weeks earlier filled with flag-waving young Lebanese protesters, was deserted. Nearby, a long line of people silently waiting to cash their salaries formed outside one of the banks, located at a former front line. At my local bakery, an employee pointed to a sign that said: ‘please wear a mask.’

I have covered my own country’s wars and more recently, neighboring Syria’s civil war. I am used to reporting on breaking news, riots and uprisings. But I’m at a loss as to how to cover this.

The pandemic has no shape, smell or sound. There is no car bomb, airstrike or clash to report on. We cannot rush to the hospital to record victims’ stories, nor can we cover their burials safely. There are no flak jackets and helmets to protect against the virus. Only sanitizers, gloves and face masks whose real value against the virus is debatable.

In Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East, with the exception of Iran, the number of confirmed cases is still relatively low. For once, we are not the epicenter of grim news. Instead of friends and colleagues asking how we are doing, we are the ones checking on colleagues in Italy, Spain and New York and telling them that this, too shall pass.

I know we are headed for disaster anyway, with or without a mass outbreak. I know the pandemic will wreak even more havoc in conflict-ridden Arab countries already facing huge economic and political challenges such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

But for now, our supermarket shelves are relatively well stocked. Perhaps because they have more experience in dealing with crises, I have not seen or heard of people in the Middle East fighting over toilet paper. And for now, even those who have already lost everything, including the millions of displaced in refugee camps, are dealing with this with calm and grace.

For some reason, this gives me hope that all is not lost.

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“Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, will showcase the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Zeina Karam is The Associated Press' news director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zkaram