BEIRUT – Lebanese lawmakers convened Tuesday inside a cavernous Beirut theater so that parliament members could observe social distancing measures imposed over the coronavirus pandemic. Anti-government demonstrators, meanwhile, also obeyed the health safety measures — driving around the city in their cars to protest the country's spiraling economic and political crisis.
As lawmakers wearing face masks arrived at the theater, known as the UNESCO palace, white uniformed paramedics sprayed them with disinfectant before they entered the gate one at a time.
The staggered, three-day session is the first by parliament since Lebanon imposed a lockdown more than a month ago to limit the spread of the virus and after meetings that were scheduled last month were postponed. The new coronavirus has infected at least 677 people and killed 21 in Lebanon. For the first time since March 3, when cases were still rare, no new infections were recorded in the last 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry's daily report Tuesday.
On the lawmakers' agenda are dozens of laws, including fighting corruption in the country's bloated public sector, a controversial draft about general amnesty and restoring looted public funds. They voted Tuesday to allow the planting of cannabis fo r medical use.
To coincide with the session, hundreds of protesters drove around Beirut in cars in a show of rejection for the political leadership that they blame for the crisis roiling the country.
“All they care about is a general amnesty law. We want to know amnesty for whom? There’s no need for that," said Dana Al Hajj, a protester. “We need laws for economic reforms, this is what the country needs. We are in an emergency and we need to know what the government and the legislators are doing about it.”
Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with unemployment figures soaring and the local currency losing more than half of its value against the dollar. Protests broke out nationwide in October against government corruption, further deepening the economic slump.
Over the past months, the protests lost some of their momentum and were subsequently interrupted by the outbreak or the pandemic. Activists, however, said they were resuming the movement but would protest inside their cars, in line with safety measures.
Some of the protesters wore masks with Lebanon's red and white flag with a green cedar tree as they drove around in convoys in major cities. In some cases, protesters gathered on foot, violating government-imposed health safety measures.
“We are here to tell them that the revolution will stay, the revolution will not die,” said Hassan Makahal, a protester. “We are going back to the streets and stronger than before.”
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where more than 20 staff at the presidential palace have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, a spokesman said Tuesday that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula have both tested negative.
Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi tweeted that Ghani, who is 70 and a cancer survivor, and his wife had both requested the test. “The President is healthy and is leading government efforts on all fronts. All precautions are in place to make sure his work environment is safe and healthy,” he tweeted.
Afghanistan has confirmed 1,092 cases of the virus, with 36 deaths so far, but testing has been sporadic and there are widespread concerns an explosion of COVID-19 would overwhelm the country’s war-ravaged health system. More than 200,000 Afghans had returned from Iran — the region's epicenter of the virus — since the beginning of the year. The returnees were not quarantined but dispersed after crossing the border to travel to their hometowns across the country.
Iran is the hardest-hit country in the region. The health ministry spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, said Tuesday there were 88 more virus deaths since the day before, bringing the death toll so far to 5,297, from a total of 84,802 cases.
In neighboring Pakistan, the family of Faisal Edhi who heads the country's top charity, the Edhi Foundation, said he tested positive for coronavirus just days after attending an April 15 meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan on a government fund for helping the poor through the pandemic.
The prime minister's physician, Faisal Sultan, said Khan would be tested for the virus protectively.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Tuesday in a statement the government would vote on a ban on cemetery visits during next week’s national Memorial Day and a countrywide lockdown on the following day’s Independence Day holiday.
Grieving families of Israeli soldiers and police mark the country’s Memorial Day with visits to the graves of the fallen. At sundown the day of mourning turns into a celebration of Israel’s Independence Day.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan; Asim Tanvir in Multan, Pakistan; Munir Ahmed and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Ilian Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.