Collapse: in Lebanon’s worst economic collapse in over a century

TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Rania Mustafa’s living room recalls a not-so-distant past, when a modest salary for a security guard in Lebanon paid for an air conditioner, lavish furniture and a flat-screen TV.

But as the country’s economic crisis deepened, she lost her job and saw her savings evaporate. Now she plans to sell her furniture to pay the rent and is struggling to afford food, much less electricity or a dentist to fix her 10-year-old daughter’s broken molar.

For dinner on a recent night, lit by a single cell phone, the family shared thin potato sandwiches donated by a neighbor. The girl carefully chewed one side of her mouth to avoid her damaged tooth.

“I have no idea how we are going to continue,” said Ms. Mustafa, 40, at her home in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city after Beirut.

Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country still haunted by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is in the throes of a financial collapse that the World Bank says may be among the worst in the world since the mid-1800s It is closing in on families whose value for money has plummeted while the cost of almost everything has skyrocketed.

Since autumn 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value and annual inflation in 2020 was 84.9%. In June, the prices of consumer goods had almost quadrupled over the previous two years, according to government statistics. The huge explosion a year ago in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and left much of the capital in ruins, has only added to the desperation.

Lebanon observed a day of mourning on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the explosion, and government offices and most businesses were closed for the occasion. Large crowds gathered around Beirut to commemorate the day and denounce their government, which failed to determine the cause of the explosion and who was responsible for it, let alone hold anyone responsible.

The explosion has exacerbated the country’s long-brewing economic crisis, and there is little relief in sight.

Years of corruption and bad policies have left the state deeply in debt and the central bank unable to continue to support the currency, as it has for decades, due to declining foreign cash flow in the country. country. Now the economy’s bottom has fallen, leaving shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

All Lebanese except the wealthy have cut meat from their diets and are lining up to refuel their cars, sweating on sweltering summer nights from prolonged power cuts.

The country has long suffered from electricity shortages, the legacy of a state that failed to provide basic services. To fill the gaps left in the state’s power supply, residents rely on private diesel generators.

But the currency collapse undermined this patchwork system.

As imported fuel became more expensive, power cuts to the grid extended from a few hours a day to 11 p.m. As a result, the demand for electricity from generators has increased, as has the cost of fuel to run them.

The resulting rise in prices has transformed an essential utility for business, health and comfort into a luxury that many families can only afford in limited quantities, if at all.

Mustafa Nabo, originally from Syria, used to work long days on his electric sewing machine, which was powered by the grid and additional power from a generator.

Today, the price of the electricity produced is almost 10 times what it was before the start of the crisis, so it hurries to work as much as it can during the two hours it is powered on. through the network. But less work means less money, and he’s cut back on his food.

“It’s better to bring food than pay for electricity,” Nabo said.

Across Lebanon, fuel shortages have led to long lines at gas stations, where drivers wait hours to buy only a few gallons, or none at all if the station runs out.

The supply of drugs has also become unreliable. The state is supposed to subsidize imports, but the crisis has also strained this system.

At a Tripoli drugstore, a line stretched from the sidewalk to the cash register, where anxious shoppers searched for drugs that are now scarce after long being readily available, such as pain relievers and painkillers. hypertension. Other products had completely disappeared, such as drugs to treat depression.

A client, Wafa Khaled, cursed the government after failing to find insulin for her mother and paying five times more than she would have paid two years ago for baby food and seven times more for formula milk.

“The best thing for us would be for a foreign country to come and take care of us so that we can have electricity, water and security,” she said.

The crisis could cause lasting damage to three sectors that have historically made Lebanon stand out in the Arab world.

In a country formerly presented as the Switzerland of the Middle East, the banks are largely insolvent. Education has taken a heavy blow as teachers and professors seek better opportunities abroad. And health care has deteriorated as reduced wages have caused an exodus of doctors and nurses.

The emergency department at the American University of Beirut medical center, among the best in the country, has grown to seven doctors, down from 12, and has lost more than half of its 65 nurses since July 2020, said Eveline Hitti, head of department.

They were driven out by waves of Covid-19, falling wages and the explosion at the Port of Beirut last year, which flooded the neighborhood with victims.

“You wonder why should I survive this? »Declared Rima Jabbour, the head nurse.

Now, Covid cases are on the rise, as are food poisoning caused by poor refrigeration and alcohol overdoses.

The country’s political leaders have failed to slow the economic collapse.

Authorities have hampered the investigation into the port explosion, and billionaire telecommunications mogul Najib Mikati is currently the third politician to attempt to form a government since the last cabinet resigned after the explosion.

Mustafa Allouch, deputy leader of the Future Movement, a prominent political party, said, like many other Lebanese, that he feared that the political system, intended to share power among various sects, would be unable to resolve the issues. country problems.

“I don’t think it will work anymore,” he said. “We have to look for another system, but I don’t know what it is.”

His greatest fear was “blind violence” born out of despair and rage.

“Looting, shootings, attacks on houses and small businesses,” he declared. “Why it hasn’t happened now, I don’t know.”

The crisis has hit the poor hardest.

Five days a week, dozens of people line up for free meals at a charity kitchen in Tripoli, some with shampoo bottles cut off to transport their food because they can’t afford regular containers.

Robert Ayoub, the project leader, said demand is increasing, donations from inside Lebanon are declining and new arrivals represent a new type of poor: soldiers, bank workers and civil servants whose wages have lost. essential to their value.

In the line of a recent day, there was a worker who had walked an hour from home because he could not afford to move; a mason whose work had dried up; and Dunia Shehadeh, an unemployed housekeeper who bought a pot of pasta and lentil soup for her husband and three children.

“It will hardly be enough for them,” she said.

The country’s downward spiral has sparked a new wave of migration, as Lebanese with foreign passports and marketable skills seek better fortune abroad.

“I can’t live in this place and I don’t want to live in this place,” Layal Azzam, 39, said before boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia from Beirut International Airport.

She and her husband had returned to Lebanon from abroad a few years ago and had invested $ 50,000 in a business. But she said that had failed and that she feared they would struggle to find care if their children got sick.

“There is no electricity. They could shut off the water. The prices are high. Even if someone sends you money from abroad, it doesn’t last, ”she said. “There are too many crises.

Drone footage by David Enders and Bryan denton. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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