North Africa, West Asia

Underground Botox: what is essential and what is not during a global pandemic?

COVID-19 might have changed people’s perception of what is considered essential, but the perception of necessities is always subjective.

Aman Bezreh
22 May 2020
Woman wearing a face mask walks on a street in Beirut, Lebanon, on April 17, 2020
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Picture by Bilal Jawich/Xinhua/PA Images. All rights reserved

COVID-19 changed life as we know it and arguably forced a set of new behavioural and social norms upon us. The lockdown measures have also shacked global economies, stretched the healthcare system to its limits and changed people’s buying behaviour and perception of essential needs.

In the UK many businesses which were deemed non- essential have been forced to close. But while the country was puzzled with the questions of when will people be able to resume their normal lives, some were puzzled with different, and maybe slightly non-essential questions: when can we get a haircut or when can we have the next Botox treatment?

For some people, as the lockdown has extended more than what was expected, questions about getting beauty treatment, hitting the gym or buying non-essential purchases had to inevitably rise. For me, the Botox treatment was the only loose end during the lockdown.

When the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the gradual and conditional easing of the lockdown measures on 10 May, it was time for me to phone up some clinics hoping that someone would pick up. Someone did, and as I secured an appointment that allowed me to use the public transportation services during a non-peak hour, I was ready for the adventure. The clinic had strict rules that must not under any circumstances be broken, the most important of which was to use the backdoor to avoid scrutinizing looks from next-door neighbours.

Following the clinic's strict guidelines to avoid attention, I couldn’t help but feel that I was smuggling revolutionary pamphlets under a dictatorial regime.

The doctor who greeted me with a smile, said to me, that “they [the government] do not understand that this treatment is essential to some people”. She added that it is “even more essential to some people than alcohol or pastries”. A debate I was willing to let her win as I was on the receiving end of a much needed essential treatment. Intentionally steering away from stereotypes that only women receive Botox or filler treatments, the doctor told me that her next appointment is with a guy, who also does not think it is a fair measure to deem beauty clinics as non-essential businesses.

What is essential and what is not?

What is essential and what is not, has been debated globally since the introduction of the lockdown measures. Some people have tapped on the issue of cosmetics and beauty treatments, although sometimes with a sarcastic or condescending tone, depending on where they stand on the subject.

What is essential and what is not, has been debated globally since the introduction of the lockdown measures

In the UK, “shopping for basic necessities” was the message the government repeatedly communicated. However, basic necessities were interpreted differently, leaving the government criticised for not providing clarity on what people should buy. At Boots, a health and beauty retailer and pharmacy chain in the UK, staff had complained about customers buying non-essential items and cosmetics, which left them “feeling unsafe” at the crowded shop.

In a phone interview with Dr. Mohamed Mehisen who works at Bristol Heart Institute, he said that “if heart procedures are being postponed during this pandemic, then beauty treatments and cosmetic buying can wait”. Asked whether “the essential” is subject to personal perception or a collective agreement, he said that “some would debate that weed is essential in these times, but that does not mean it is.” A stance that was expected from a cardiologist.

Lebanon and Syria: crisis, war and beauty

Away from London, I wanted to ask a doctor about the beauty scene in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, a country not only suffering from COVID-19 measures but also crushed under a severe economic crisis. Dr Hussein Hashim, a specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery, told me during a phone interview that doctors had stopped elective procedures at the beginning of the lockdown and performed only emergency ones.

for Lebanese people, COVID-19 was not an obstacle for demanding beauty treatments or plastic surgeries, rather it was the economic crisis

However two weeks into the lockdown, plastic surgery resumed under one condition which was the PCR test. He added that doctors are taking protective measures and do not allow crowding at the waiting room for simple procedures carried out at the clinic such as Botox and filler injections., This has brought the work pace back to normal. Dr Hashim also confirmed that for Lebanese people, COVID-19 was not an obstacle for demanding beauty treatments or plastic surgeries, rather it was the economic crisis, especially with the severe devaluation of the Lebanese Pound and the devastated economy.

The financial crisis in Lebanon was deepened when protestors took to the streets on 17 October 2019 to protest the worsening economy and corruption. As the financial crisis raged, banks decided to withhold their customers’ deposits and limit the withdrawals of US dollars from accounts. This has imposed a challenge to daily life, and of course to beauty clinics, especially that the economic crisis have more than halved the value of the Lebanese Pound. The lockdown that was imposed since mid March 2020 has also shut down Beirut airport, which according to Dr Hashim, had a serious effect on the plastic surgery tourism in the country.

Dr. Yousef [pseudonym] another plastic surgery specialist, told me during an interview that at the beginning of the lockdown, beauty clinics were closed “only in principle”, but basic treatments were being done upon request for “selected clients”. He said that he himself has been providing Botox and filler injections at home sometimes; he either goes to the client or the client comes to him. He added sarcastically, that for some Beirutis, these treatments are more important than food and water. Dr. Yousef continued to tell me that at the beginning of the lockdown, a client offered him an extra USD 50 to persuade him to carry on with her arranged appointment, a sum he refused for obvious ethical reasons, but he agreed to provide her with the treatment she deemed necessary in secret at his clinic.

In Syria, Lebanon’s neighbouring country, war did not stop some women and men from getting beauty treatments

In Syria, Lebanon’s neighbouring country, war did not stop some women and men from getting beauty treatments. In an interview, Dr. Jarrah [pseudonym] explained to me how beauty treatments are being done during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Jarrah said that the beauty treatment business, like any other business, have been hit hard by the pandemic, adding that the hit was merely because of the rise of the material prices, mainly of American Botox and Hyaluronic Acid filler.

“Treatments at home or at the clinic are considered safe when the doctor and the client are wearing the adequate protective equipment,” he added. At the end of our phone call, Dr. Jarrah explained that a person’s judgement on what is essential is what keeps the demand for these treatments high.

The demand on beauty treatments during the pandemic might not be a global phenomenon, but one that we see more clearly in countries where political and economic shocks and bruises are the everyday norm, and public health issues are at the bottom of priorities. COVID-19 might have changed people’s perception of what is considered essential, but the perception of necessities is always subjective.

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