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BEIRUT, Lebanon – As she sat in the sun in her Mini Cooper, cutting through a long line of cars to refuel, Lynn Husami, 23, tried to make good use of her time. She had a phone call 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 remembered, she still wasn’t at the train station, was drenched in sweat and needed a toilet. But she feared losing her place in line if she looked for one.
“I’m hopeless. I’m upset. I’m frustrated,” she summed up the feelings of many Lebanese over the financial collapse that has turned once routine errands into nightmares that fill their days and empty their wallets. and there is nothing we can do about it. I don’t know how we can fix it all. “
Lebanon is suffering from a financial crisis that the World Bank says could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-19th century in terms of its impact on living standards. The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value since the fall of 2019, and unemployment has skyrocketed as businesses have closed. Imported goods that were once commonplace have become scarce.
The double blow of the pandemic and the massive explosion in the port of Beirut almost a year ago, in which around 200 people were killed and the capital was badly damaged, have made the already dire situation even 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 is now home to at least a million refugees from neighboring Syria. Lebanon also forms an active front in the regional struggle for influence between Iran and Israel and the West.
In Lebanon, the crisis has created a distinct sense of the country’s end, as everyone but the richest spend their days sweating through frequent power outages, waiting in fuel lines that wind around city blocks, and running from pharmacy to pharmacy, to search for drugs that have disappeared from the shelves.
The gross domestic product of the small Mediterranean country with about six million inhabitants collapsed by about 40 percent to 33 billion dollars last year, from 55 billion dollars in 2018, the last full year before the crisis began, the World Bank said. Per capita income also fell by roughly the same percentage during this period, so that more than half of the population was poor.
Such severe economic contractions are usually “associated with conflict or war,” the World Bank said on May 31. But the Lebanon crisis was caused by large government deficit spending, which left it heavily in debt, and unsustainable monetary policy that eventually collapsed. The banks are largely insolvent and the value of the currency collapses.
So far, the country’s divided political system has offered nothing more than uncompromising solutions to the most immediate crisis: increasing the price of subsidized bread, reducing electricity production, and subsidizing fuel, drug and grain imports about $ 500 million per month from the dwindling reserves of the Central bank.
Last week Parliament passed a bill spending $ 556 million on a food card program for poor families, though it remains unclear how it will work and how the state will pay for it.
The current cabinet resigned almost a year ago after the port of Beirut exploded. But it continues to act as an administrator, which according to its members does not give it the power to make sweeping political decisions while the country’s political parties argue over the composition of a new government.
When he announced the resignation of his cabinet last August, the acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed a “system of corruption” that is not only “deeply rooted in all functions of the state” but actually “larger” for Lebanon’s many problems as the state ”and so powerful that the state“ cannot face it or get rid of it ”.
As the crisis accelerated, Lebanese people had to adjust painfully: climbing stairs because elevators ran out of electricity, skipping meat or skipping meals because food prices rose, and wasting much of their days keeping their cars moving .
One day Saad al-Din Dimasi, 45, left his car idling and was pushing it through a long line in front of a gas station in Beirut to save as much of his scarce fuel as possible. He’d taken off from his job at a local shoe company to refuel and stood in line for so long that he was now late for work.
Sweat stuck to his gray hair and jeans, and he’d pulled all of his clothes off except for a white tank top to keep cool. But his worries didn’t stop at the pump.
His house only has electricity for a few hours a day and he could only afford a few more hours from a private generator, not enough to survive the sultry summer nights.
“As soon as the air conditioning goes off, the mosquitos come and then the heat,” he said.
It made him tired at work, where his monthly salary of £ 1.2 million Lebanese pound, which had been worth $ 800 before the crisis, was now worth less than $ 80.
When he talked about the financial pressures on his wife and two teenage children, he choked.
“If my son asks for something and I can’t give it to him, I just can’t handle it,” he said.
Everyone in line had similar problems: a high school teacher who had worked for 41 years trying to earn an almost worthless pension; a 70-year-old taxi driver who feared his car would need repairs that he couldn’t afford; an electrical engineer trained in the Soviet Union who remembered waiting in fuel lines there and angry that she had to do so in her own country.
Those with foreign passports or marketable skills will leave the country as soon as possible.
Ahmed al-Aweineh, 31, had been on his way to a comfortable life in Beirut before the crisis, with a job as a pharmacist in a private hospital and a teaching position at a university.
He arrived just before dawn one morning for gasoline and waited in line for four hours, making him late for work.
His pharmacy is often lacking blood pressure medication and even pain relievers and antibiotics, he said, something that has never been done before.
So he got a new job in the United Arab Emirates, where his salary is ten times that and he doesn’t have to wait to fill his tank, he said.
“I have a good job and a job at the university, but as far as life goes, you just can’t live here,” he said.
The currency crash has made it more expensive for traders to import drugs, and the central bank’s subsidy payments aimed at maintaining drug collection have been delayed, leading to the bottlenecks.
One afternoon outside a pharmacy in Beirut, a mother searched in vain for acne medication for one son and prescription eye drops for another; a bank manager hadn’t found any of the five drugs his sister’s doctor recommended for Covid-19; and one couple said they went to nine pharmacies without finding epilepsy medication for the woman or Parkinson’s disease medication that the man’s mother had been taking for decades.
At another pharmacy, Elie Khoury, 48, said he managed to find only two of the five drugs his doctor recommended to treat the cluster headaches that kept him awake at night.
So far he had only checked with pharmacies within walking distance of the clothing store he ran because his car was running out of gas. But he worried that he wouldn’t find the pain medication until the pharmacies closed for the day.
“If I can’t find it,” he said, “I’ll just have to deal with the pain.”
Hwaida Saad contributed to the coverage.