Beirut: You cannot longer take for granted that you will find ordinary painkillers in your local pharmacy in the Lebanese capital. Drugs are disappearing from the shelves, and several pharmacies have already closed down. People are often forced to do the round between several outlets to find what they look for, if available at the market at all.
State subsidies on pharmaceuticals and certain health services have been one of few lifelines for poor Lebanese and refugees after the economic collapse hit the country towards the end of 2019. Subsidized fuel, electricity, and basic foodstuffs also helped cushion the crash when the local currency dived and decimated household budgets.
Lately, state subsidies are being rolled back. The state’s financial reserves are drying up and the national bank is signaling that it is no longer able to secure international credit lines for subsidized imports. The insecurity in the market has led to hoarding, which along with smuggling of subsidized import goods to Syria and other countries all contribute further to empty the shelves of import goods.
An overview from Maarouf Saad Social and Cultural Centre – one of NORWAC’s longstanding Lebanese partner organizations – shows that prices on certain available pharmaceuticals have increased up to tenfold of the original prices in Lebanese pounds. Prices on other products have still “only” doubled, but are expected to increase further, as state subsidies are rolled back.
The situation is critical for many chronically ill, says Dr. Abdullah Alomary, healthcare program manager at URDA, a Lebanese NGO partner of NORWAC. URDA has so far been able to secure the supplements needed to continue a dialysis program for Syrian refugees with renal failure, sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through NORWAC, and UNHCR. But Alomary stresses that many other chronically ill, even those enrolled with the national social security program are now facing hard times, as the whole system is buckling. Diabetes and cancer patients are not able to find medication anymore, and even if they do, the social security offices are not able to reimburse them.
Another partner organization, the National Institute for Social Care and Vocational Training treat children with mental health problems. Their mental health coordinator, Ms. Khawla Khalaf, tells about a daily struggle to secure psychopharmacological drugs for the children in need. She describes the situation for poor families in need of mental health medication as catastrophic, with no sight in end.
At the same time, poverty is on the rise in crisis-ridden Lebanon. Approximately half the population live below the poverty line, double the rate since before the crisis. Nine out of ten Syrian refugees in the country – almost a million people – live in extreme poverty. The situation in Palestinian camps and gatherings is also critical, as livelihood opportunities and wages are decimated. According to NORWAC partner Palestine Red Crescent Society, only 37 percent of the refugees have some sort of income generating employment.
The already fragile Lebanese health sector was put under severe strains at the height of the corona pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, with hardly enough beds or medical capacity to cover the needs. After a calmer period throughout the last months, there are now fears that another corona wave will hit the sector at a time of severe scarcity on electricity and medical supplies. State electricity is down to two hours a day many places, and generator supply prices are skyrocketing. Dr. Alomary says it is increasingly difficult to run the URDA primary healthcare centers throughout Lebanon.
In a recent report, the World Bank described the Lebanese collapse as one of the worst economic crises to hit a country globally since the mid 19th century. While the situation is worsening by the day, there seems to be no answers to how Lebanon can get through this dark period. To make matters even worse, the prospects for a new government are dim, after the last one resigned one year ago. The Lebanese fear thing may get far worse before they get better.
Written by Bendik Sørvig. NORWAC’s Country Representative, Lebanon
Pictures of Wael Mohammad Al Abdallah (10) and Suriya Wahban Alabed Allah (53) recieving dialysis treatment at one of the clinics, by URDA