As the Lebanese crisis worsens, fuel lines expand and food and medicine become scarce

BEIRUT, Lebanon – As she sat in the sun in her Mini Cooper, weaving her way through a long line of cars to get gas, 23-year-old Lynn Husami tried to use her time well. She had a phone meeting with the supervisor of her master’s thesis, called an old friend, and played video games on her Nintendo Switch.

But after four hours, she recalls, she still hadn’t made it to the station, was soaked in sweat and needed a bathroom. But she was afraid of losing her place in the line if she looked for one.

“I am desperate. I am angry. I am frustrated,” she said, summing up the feelings of many Lebanese in the face of the financial collapse which has turned once routine errands into nightmares that fill their days and cleanse their lives. wallets. “It’s getting worse and worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t know how we can fix it all.”

Lebanon is suffering from a financial crisis which the world bank said could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s in terms of the effect on living standards. Its currency has lost more than 90% of its value since fall 2019, and unemployment has skyrocketed as businesses shut down. Imported products that were once commonplace have become scarce.

The double blow of the pandemic and the huge explosion in the port of Beirut almost a year ago that killed around 200 people and severely damaged the capital has made what was already a bad situation worse.

The crisis threatens to add a new element of volatility to a country in the center of the Middle East that was once a cultural and financial hub and now hosts at least one million refugees from neighboring Syria. Lebanon also forms an active front in the regional struggle for influence between Iran and Israel and the West.

Inside Lebanon, the crisis has created a distinct sense that the country is falling apart, as all but the richest spend their days sweating through frequent blackouts, waiting in pipes. of fuel surrounding city blocks and running from drugstore to drugstore looking for drugs. that have disappeared from the shelves.

The gross domestic product of this small Mediterranean country of about six million people fell by around 40%, to $ 33 billion last year, from $ 55 billion in 2018, the last full year before the start. of the crisis, said the World Bank. Per capita income also declined by about the same percentage during this period, leaving more than half of the population in poverty.

Such severe economic contractions are usually “associated with conflict or war,” the World Bank said on May 31. But Lebanon’s crisis was caused by large government deficit spending that left it deeply in debt, and unsustainable monetary policies that ultimately collapsed, leaving banks largely insolvent and the currency’s value plunging.

So far, the country’s cranky political system has failed to offer more than wacky solutions to the most immediate crisis, whatever it may be: raising the prices of subsidized bread, reducing electricity production and subsidize fuel, medicine and grain imports to the tune of about $ 500 million per month from shrinking central bank reserves.

Last week, Parliament passed a law to spend $ 556 million on a ration card program for poor families, although it is still unclear how it will work and how the state will pay for it.

The current government resigned almost a year ago after the explosion in the port of Beirut. But it continues to play a guardian role, which its members say does not give them the power to make sweeping political decisions as the country’s political parties vie for the composition of a new government.

Announcing the resignation of his cabinet last August, Acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed Lebanon’s many problems on a “system of corruption” which is not only “deeply rooted in all the functions of the government. State ”, but in fact“ more than the State ”and so powerful that the State“ cannot face it or get rid of it ”.

As the crisis accelerated, the Lebanese were forced to adapt in painful ways: walking up the stairs because the elevators ran out of power, cutting meat or skipping meals because food prices soared and waste a lot of their days just to get their cars running.

On a recent day, 45-year-old Saad al-Din Dimasi left his car at a standstill and pushed it into a long line outside a Beirut gas station to save as much as possible of its scarce fuel. He had taken a break from work at a local shoe company to refuel and been stuck in the queue for so long that he was now late to return to work.

His gray hair and jeans were tangled with sweat, and he had stripped down to a white tank top to try and keep cool. But her worries didn’t stop at the pump.

His house only has a few hours a day of electricity from the grid and he could only afford a few more hours on a private generator, not enough to get through the sweltering summer nights.

“As soon as the air conditioning turns off, the mosquitoes come in and then the heat,” he said.

It made him tired at work, where his monthly salary of 1.2 million Lebanese pounds, which was worth $ 800 before the crisis, was now worth less than $ 80.

While talking about the financial pressures on his wife and two teenage children, he choked on him.

“If my son asks for something and I can’t give it to him, I just can’t handle it,” he said.

Everyone online had similar issues: a high school teacher who had worked for 41 years to earn a pension that was worth next to nothing; a 70-year-old taxi driver who feared his car would need repairs he couldn’t afford; an electrical engineer trained in the Soviet Union who remembered waiting in the fuel lines there and was furious that she now had to do it in her own country.

Those with foreign passports or cash-able skills rush to leave the country as fast as they can.

Before the crisis, Ahmed al-Aweineh, 31, was on the way to a comfortable life in Beirut, with a job as a pharmacist in a private hospital and a teaching post at a university.

One recent morning, he arrived near dawn to get gas and stood in line for four hours, making him late for work.

His pharmacy often ran out of blood pressure medication and even pain relievers and antibiotics, he said, something that had never happened before.

He had therefore accepted a new job in the United Arab Emirates, where his salary would be 10 times higher and he would not have to wait to refuel, he said.

“I have a good job and a job at university, but as far as life is concerned, you just can’t live here,” he said.

The currency crash made it more expensive for traders to import drugs, and central bank subsidy payments to keep drugs flowing in were delayed, causing shortages.

Outside a Beirut pharmacy one recent afternoon, a mother unsuccessfully picked up acne medication for one son and prescription eye drops for another; a bank manager could not find any of the five drugs his doctor recommended to his sister for Covid-19; and a couple said they went to nine pharmacies without finding the woman’s epilepsy medicine and Parkinson’s medicine the man’s mother had been taking for decades.

At another pharmacy, Elie Khoury, 48, said he was only able to find two of the five medications his doctor recommended to treat the cluster headaches that attacked him at night and kept him awake.

So far he had only asked at pharmacies within walking distance of the clothing store he was running because his car was out of gas. But he was worried he wouldn’t find the pain relievers before the pharmacies closed for the day.

“If I can’t find them,” he said, “I’ll just have to face the pain. “

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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