Lebanon: What life is like in a ‘failed state’

As the economic crisis grinds on, Lebanese navigate soaring food costs and fuel and medicine shortages.

Lebanon is struggling amid a two-year economic crisis that the World Bank has described as among the worst the world has witnessed since the mid-1850s [File: Hassan Ammar/AP]

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Beirut, Lebanon – Zeinab Mawla wipes the sweat off her upper lip as she sits behind the wheel of her car in the blistering September heat, waiting for her turn at a petrol station in Jnah, a district in the south of Lebanon’s capital.

It is nearly midday, but she has been queueing since 4am to fill her tank before rushing back to work at Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH) – the country’s largest public hospital and leading coronavirus treatment facility.

Dozens of cars are parked in front of Mawla, while behind her even more stretch for half a kilometre. Lebanese army soldiers organise the lines but fail to keep people’s tempers from flaring.

With Lebanon facing worsening fuel shortages, the 27-year-old resident doctor takes turns with her hospital colleagues to refuel their cars. While one cares for patients on the ward, another fills their tank.

“It takes eight to nine hours to get the job done. Many times, things get tense,” she says, referring to explosions, shootings and fights that break out frequently at stations across the country.

“A trip to fill petrol is a gamble,” says Mawla, brushing thick black hair from her damp forehead.

Lebanese wait in a queue outside a closed petrol station in Beirut’s Hamra district [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

‘Everything’s shutting down’

Back at the hospital, the young medic walks down a dim, humid corridor towards the coronavirus ward where she cares for dozens of patients.

Many hospitals across Lebanon have turned off lights and air conditioners in corridors and administrative areas to save on fuel for generators for operating rooms and patient wards.

With colleagues unable to get to work due to the fuel shortages, 10-15 percent of staff are absent from each shift, and Mawla finds herself caring for three times as many patients as she used to. She looks tired as she flips through patient notes.

Like most of her colleagues, she sleeps at the hospital and only goes home every two or three days.

She regularly finds herself unable to provide simple treatment for patients due to medicine and equipment shortages.

“A 23-year-old came into the COVID ward the other day with an infection. We didn’t have antibiotics to treat it. He passed away,” says Mawla, her voice shaking.

Patients wait on benches in a hallway of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in the Lebanese capital, Beirut [File: AFP]

“Things like syringes and tissues run out,” says Salem al-Akoum, a clinical nursing supervisor at RHUH. “We have to ration drugs and spend our time looking for painkillers and aspirin.”

Until a few years ago, Lebanon was a leading provider of medical care in the Arab world with people coming to Beirut for plastic surgery in particular.

In today’s Lebanon, hospitals tell patients to bring their own drugs and turn others away due to lack of supplies, equipment, and even staff.

With a breakdown of the financial and banking systems since 2019, decades of rampant corruption, and the coronavirus pandemic – the health sector is just one of many that has collapsed. Lebanon today faces one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years, which has pushed millions into poverty. People can no longer access basic services while items such as staple foods have become unaffordable. The collapse has also fuelled a black market for electricity, petrol, and medicine.

In a crisis that has touched every corner of people’s lives, Mawla and her colleagues wonder how long they can continue.

“The hospital’s very depressing. Everything’s shutting down around me and we’re all suffering from depression and anxiety,” Mawla says. “I became a doctor to help others, but all I can offer is love and care.”

Lebanon’s economic crisis has piled pressure on hospitals, leaving them increasingly ill-equipped to address patients’ needs [File:STR/AFP]

‘I might’ve lived’

Across town, sitting in her one-bedroom flat in east Beirut’s Achrafieh neighbourhood, Sayde Slim, 58, explains how she is unable to access cancer treatment.

Slim, who worked as a graphic designer until the pandemic hit, was diagnosed with stage one bone cancer five months ago.

When she received the devastating news, Slim had already spent her life’s savings to repair what was destroyed of her home in last year’s deadly August 4 port blast. She cannot afford chemotherapy.

Sayde Slim, 58, was diagnosed with bone cancer five months ago but is unable to afford chemotherapy [Ali Abbass/Al Jazeera]

Slim lived through one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands, but she is unsure if she will survive cancer.

The health ministry previously provided cancer drugs at very low cost to patients without health insurance. But vital drugs, including cancer medication, are virtually impossible to find in pharmacies.

The Lebanese economy’s downturn doubled the number of families suffering multi-dimensional poverty in two years, according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, making 82 percent unable to afford at least one essential service like healthcare and electricity.

“If I had the money, I might’ve lived,” says Slim, who is among tens of thousands of cancer patients in the country, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Without treatment, she faces imminent death.

“I’m in constant pain,” she says, shuffling her legs onto a small grey stool. “I pray that Jesus grants me patience to live through this.”

Shortages in many vital drugs across Lebanon are threatening the treatment of tens of thousands of people [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

Bartering milk, paper and stamp shortages

Northeast of Beirut, Talar Kouymoudjian, 35, lives in the Armenian-majority district of Bourj Hammoud. For three months, she has been unable to find formula milk for her 11-month-old daughter, Maghriya.

“From Batroun to Byblos and back to Beirut, I’ve been begging at every pharmacy for a tin of formula milk,” says Kouymoudjian, whose doctor advised her to use a specific formula milk after Maghriya got constipated from others.

Desperate, Kouymoudjian published a post to barter her formula pack on a Facebook group called LibanTroc, which brings together a growing number of people bartering for goods they need.

Zeina Matar, an expectant mother, says that she has been trying to avoid the frantic search for baby milk when her son arrives by stocking up on it during her final trimester. “Friends coming from abroad bring me a few tins,” she says.

Many Lebanese women check social media pages every day to look for people exchanging formula milk, baby clothes and diapers [File: Joseph Eid/AFP]

Other shortages are disrupting people’s ability to get legal documents processed, such as passports that need to be renewed for travel.

For months, state institutions, ministries and notaries have suffered from a shortage of paper and official stamps for transactions, bills and processing legal documents. This shortage even meant that thousands of official transactions were halted, depriving the treasury of millions of dollars in revenue.

People face delays or are forced to buy A4 paper and official stamps on the black market so their documents can be processed. One Beirut-based lawyer says he has been unable to pay a client’s fine for months because the office receiving it says they are out of paper and cannot issue a receipt.

Unaffordable food staples, fruit a luxury

For decades, Lebanon has relied on imports of essential goods such as fuel, medicine, and food products. To tackle crippling shortages, the government has dialled back on subsidies for certain goods. As subsidies lifted, the cost of staples like rice and beans have more than doubled in one year and fuel prices have shot up because of the dependency on imports and the deepening liquidity crisis.

Since 2019, the Lebanese pound or lira, which the central bank maintains at the official rate of 1,500 to the US dollar (both currencies are used in Lebanon), has lost more than 90 percent of its street value, surpassing 20,000 to the dollar in July. Most people earn and spend in the local currency, the black-market value of which fluctuates daily.

A shortage of paper and stamps needed on all official transactions and bills has led to further collapse of Lebanon’s financial sector [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Staples like pita flatbread and bottled water are harder to find, and many supermarket shelves are bare.

Emerging from a long queue at a bakery in Beirut’s densely populated Nabaa neighbourhood, Jana Chiban looks flustered as she perches a crying toddler on her hip. “I’ve been queueing for hours, and I only got a single bag of bread,” says the mother of three.

Many bakeries have shut down because they cannot afford the diesel to power private generators, and state-provided electricity cuts now extend to 21 hours a day. Those that remain open ration what bread they bake against their power supply.

A July report by the Lebanon Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut (AUB) said that the cost of a family’s basic food basket was five times the national minimum wage, which stands at 675,000 Lebanese pounds a month.

The national minimum wage was once worth almost $450 at the official exchange rate. Today, it is worth approximately $42 on the black market.

As food prices soared by up to 400 percent in December last year, items like meat and fruit have become luxuries.

Food staples like bread are getting more expensive and harder to find [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

In south Lebanon, Wael Slika, 32, who owns a fruit farm, says his sales have decreased by 40 percent while the price of black-market fuel and diesel have increased his costs by 600 percent.

“Of course, my selling prices have spiked, too,” he says. A kilo (about two pounds) of grapes he sold before the crisis at 1,000 Lebanese pounds is now eight times more expensive.

There is no diesel for water pumps, electricity for produce to stay fresh in fridges, petrol to transport goods to the market, nor “fresh dollars” to buy imported pesticides, complains Slika, as he packs boxes of freshly picked grapes to sell at a market.

“People can no longer afford staple foods, let alone luxury items like fruit,” he adds. He used to sell 150 boxes of prickly pears a day when in season, while now, he sells 50 if he is lucky.

Lebanese farmers previously made handsome profits in regional markets. But with the economic crisis, an underdeveloped agricultural sector, and incidents that tainted the reputation of Lebanese produce and cut off a major foreign market, Saudi Arabia, Lebanese farmers have been hit hard.

A Lebanese man buys prickly pears and figs from a street vendor in Beirut [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

Scouring for electricity

In Beirut’s central Hamra district, Charles Semaan, a 36-year-old copywriter, spends his days scouring his neighbourhood for cafes with electricity so he can work on his laptop and charge his phone.

All key networks — GPS, telecom, traffic lights, water systems — depend on stable electricity. But Lebanon’s tattered electric grid, built on a patchwork of generators, wires and the inept state-owned Electricite du Liban, has failed to provide reliable power to residents.

With worsening power cuts and the shortage in diesel to power private generators or fuel to move around, Semaan’s only option is to work in local cafes with generators.

Charles Semaan, 36, spends his days looking for cafes with electricity so he can work [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

When the generator goes off every few hours, he closes his laptop, takes a cigarette break, and waits for the power to return.

One afternoon, he heads home to put on a load of washing when the state-provided electricity returns.

He passes by a busy barbershop that has moved its customers onto the pavement for some natural light and a slight breeze after the power outage.

A barber inside the dark shop uses his phone torch to see as he shaves his customer’s dark beard.

A barber uses the flashlight on his phone as he shaves a customer at his shop in Beirut’s Hamra district [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

“Our lives are a continuous cycle of navigating power cuts and fuel shortages,” he says, as the lift in his building starts to descend.

A radiant smile spreads across his face as he utters one of the most joyous phrases to be heard in Lebanon: “Electricity is back!”

An Iranian fuel shipment recently arrived to help relieve the country’s fuel shortage. Egypt and Iraq have also promised to send fuel to Lebanon, but several experts told Al Jazeera it was unlikely to resolve the crisis.

Cartel-controlled fuel and medicine

In recent months, nearly every sector in Lebanon has collapsed, creating a growing demand for black markets across the small Mediterranean country.

The biggest black markets for fuel and medicine are run by powerful cartels in bed with the ruling class, experts have said.

“It’s cartels and shady politicians in co-hoots with one another that are behind this messy situation,” says Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut.

“[The] marriage of business and politics in Lebanon has been to the detriment of this country for years,” says Carmen Geha, assistant professor of public administration at AUB.

During the past few weeks, the Lebanese army and security forces raided several warehouses and depots in search of hidden stockpiles of medicine and tanks of fuel.

The raid of a warehouse storing cancer drugs which belonged to Rabih Hassouneh, a member of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party, made headlines.

Sources have said cartels make higher profits by selling hoarded supplies on the black market or keeping them until the country dials back on subsidies on imported medicine and fuel, before flooding the market again. Others smuggle them across the border into Syria to sell for higher prices.

Chronic fuel shortages have meant basic services, including the regular collection of rubbish from Beirut’s streets, are not always available [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Rabih, 39, who only wanted to give his first name, came face to face with the medicine shortage when a doctor prescribed hypertensive medication for his father in mid-July.

After several pharmacists told him the drug was out of stock, one medicine supplier on the black market said he could offer a box for $50 or two for $80.

“I couldn’t afford that, so I looked everywhere for the drug,” says Rabih.

He eventually found the medication at a pharmacy for around one-fifth of the black-market price.

Medicines are getting harder to find and many rely, if they can, on family members bringing medication from abroad [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Since then, he has depended on family and friends coming from abroad for supplies – a growing phenomenon in Lebanon. Rabih says his brother came from Germany this year with a whole suitcase of medicine for chronic illnesses.

Rabih himself suffers from chronic reflux. Five months ago, he could not find antacid anywhere.

“But when subsidies were lifted on that drug in June, it flooded pharmacies the next day. Prices jumped from 21,000 (Lebanese pounds) to 126,000.”

Black market fuel

As Lebanon’s black markets sap the life out of average citizens, they create business opportunities for others.

Ahmed, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a petrol station inspector at one of the country’s largest petrol companies.

Lebanon has “twice as much fuel as it needs, but it’s being hoarded,” he says.

“Whether it’s politicians, the police, or even the army, which was once known for being clean, everyone’s part of the black market,” Ahmed says.

To show how corruption operates within the police ranks, he places a call to a high-ranking officer.

“I need a tank of petrol,” he says. The police officer responds affirmatively, telling him to pass by for a 20-litre barrel of petrol at 350,000 Lebanese pounds or nearly three times the state-sanctioned price at the time.

“Lebanon’s divided in two. Half the population sells petrol, the other half buys it,” says Ahmed. “And everyone’s complicit.”

Everyday chatter on the streets involves stories about taxi drivers filling their tanks with petrol then selling it on the black market; raids on petrol stations uncovering thousands of litres of hoarded fuel; people offering to queue on behalf of others for a service fee; and others paying tips of 100,000 Lebanese pounds to get a turn at the pump.

People wait for hours to get fuel at gas stations [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

At night, some party the night away

When night falls, Beirut streets are pitch-black and entire districts, particularly Downtown, once known for its trendy shops and high-end hotels and restaurants, are now a ghost town.

Demonstrators targeted the affluent area during the October 2019 protest movement against a corrupt ruling class.

After the port blast devastated the city and coronavirus lockdowns, electricity cuts were the final nail in the coffin – the Downtown ground to a standstill.

“Beirut isn’t the same anymore. It’s scary to walk at night,” says Chantelle Saif, as she waits at a dark street corner in the city centre.

Along Beirut’s seafront, the promenade teems with families who have flocked to the Mediterranean seaside – the only respite from the heat and electricity cuts.

Only a small fraction of Lebanese is extremely wealthy and can afford to party like there’s no tomorrow, say experts [File: Emilie Madi/Reuters]

Further along the seafront, young people dance to techno on the terrace of the abandoned St Georges Hotel. Blue disco lights bounce off the windows of the nearby Phoenicia.

The once-plush hotel, which marked Lebanon’s golden age, stands as lifeless as the bullet-riddled Holiday Inn across the road – a reminder that Lebanon’s harrowing civil war ended only decades ago.

Away from the seafront, in the upscale neighbourhood of Badaro, Martial Bresse, 27, owner of the cocktail bar Lennon gets ready for his customers in the early evening. For Bresse, business could not be better.

“This year’s been the best since I opened three years ago,” he says.

Some of the regulars at Lennon are Lebanese who usually live abroad or young professionals working for international companies that pay them in dollars.

Even for those earning in the local currency, a night out is the only way to cope, says Bresse.

“If by the end of the month you’ve got 500 liras, you’d rather spend it on a good time. Why save when it has no value?” he says as he pours local gin into a glass of ice.

Sitting at the bar, Sara, 31, agrees: “Why should I save money? F*** it. Let’s have fun.”

Bresse says that while his electricity bill has multiplied, he is still making a profit in the local currency and is set to open a new cafe. “Two years ago, I would have needed $300,000 to launch it. Now, I only needed $100,000.”

People walk past a bar in Mar Mikhael neighbourhood [File: Emilie Madi/Reuters]

Referring to the sharp social contrasts visible in Lebanon today, Bitar, the political scientist, says the country has always been marked by extreme social and economic inequalities.

“A small percentage is extremely wealthy and can afford to party like there’s no tomorrow. The remaining 97 percent can’t make ends meet. This is particularly evident today,” he says.

A ‘failed’ state

Essentially, Lebanon’s problem is political, with sectarianism, corruption, and lack of sovereignty, being at the core of it all, says Bitar.

The result is a “Lebanese state that has failed at every single level.

Despite the announcement of a new cabinet after 13 months without one, “Lebanon is witnessing state collapse and the government will continue to fall short on delivering basic services,” he says.

The daily grind continues despite the lack of everything.

This way of being can only be explained through the “Lebanese people’s determination not to be broken,” Bitar says. “They’re no longer resilient. They’re exhausted but hanging on.”

Source: Al Jazeera