BEIRUT, Lebanon – As she sat in the sun with her Mini Cooper entering a long line of cars to refuel, Lynn Husami, 23, tried to make good use of her time. She had a phone call with her master thesis advisor, called an old friend and played video games on her Nintendo Switch.
But after four hours, she recalled, she had not yet arrived at the station, was drenched in sweat and needed a bath. But she was afraid of losing her place in the queue if she wanted one.
“I am just hopeless. I am angry. “I’m irritated,” she said, summing up the feelings of many Lebanese about the financial collapse that has turned once-routine tasks into nightmares that fill their days and clear their wallets. “It is getting worse and there is nothing we can do about it. “I do not know how we can fix all this.”
Lebanon is suffering a financial crisis that the World Bank has said could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s in terms of its effect on living standards. Its currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value since autumn 2019 and unemployment has skyrocketed as businesses close. Imported goods that were once common have become scarce.
The double plague of the pandemic and the huge explosion in the port of Beirut almost a year ago that killed about 200 people and severely damaged the capital has made what was already a bad situation much worse.
This has created a clear sense that the country is disintegrating, as everyone except the richest Lebanese now spends their days sweating through frequent outages, waiting at gas lines that run through city blocks and running from the pharmacy at the pharmacy to look for medicines that have disappeared from the shelves.
The gross domestic product of the small Mediterranean country of about six million people fell by about 40 percent, to $ 33 billion last year, from $ 55 billion in 2018, the last full year before the crisis began, the World Bank said. Per capita income also fell by the same percentage during that period, leaving more than half the population poor.
Such severe economic contractions are usually “accompanied by conflicts or wars,” the World Bank said on May 31. But the Lebanon crisis was triggered by huge deficit spending by the government that left it deep in debt, and by volatile monetary policies that eventually collapsed, leaving mostly insolvent banks and the value of the currency sinking.
So far, the country’s soft political system has failed to offer more than shattered solutions to any more immediate crisis: rising subsidized bread prices, declining electricity production and subsidizing imports of fuel, medicine and cereals in the amount of about $ 500 million per month from central bank reserves.
Last week, Parliament passed a bill to spend $ 556 million on a ration card program for poor families, though it remains unclear how the state will operate and how it will pay for it.
The current cabinet resigned almost a year ago after the Beirut port bombing. But it continues to serve in a caretaker capacity, which its members say does not give them the authority to make inclusive policy decisions as the country’s political parties quarrel over the composition of a new government.
Announcing the resignation of his cabinet last August, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed many of Lebanon’s problems on a “corruption system” that is not only “deeply rooted in all functions of the state”, but in fact greater than the state “and as powerful as the state” can not afford it or get rid of it. “
As the crisis has accelerated, Lebanese have been forced to adjust in painful ways: climbing stairs because elevators lack power, cutting meat or skipping meals because food prices soared and wasting large chunks of days just to keep cars their on the move.
One last day, Saad al-Din Dimasi, 45, had left his car in neutral and was pushing it through a long line outside a Beirut gas station to save as much of his meager fuel as possible. He had taken a break from his job at a local shoe company to get gas and was stuck in queues so much that he was now late returning to work.
His gray hair and jeans were mixed with sweat and he was naked on a white top of the tank to try to stay cool. But his worries did not end at the pump.
His house has only a few hours a day of electricity from the grid and he could only afford a few hours more from a private generator, not so much as going through summer nights.
“Once the air conditioning, the mosquitoes come and then the heat,” he said.
That left him tired at work, where his 1.2 1.2m Lebanese’s monthly salary, which had been worth $ 800 before the crisis, was now worth less than $ 80.
While talking about the financial pressures on his wife and his two teenage children, he drowned.
“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 troubles: a high school teacher who had worked for 41 years to earn a pension that was almost worthless; a 70-year-old taxi driver who was terrified his car would need repairs he could not afford; an electrical engineer educated in the Soviet Union who recalls that she was waiting at gas stations there and was furious that she now had to do so in her home country.
Those with foreign passports or marketable skills are rushing to leave the country as soon as they can.
Before the crisis, Ahmed al-Aweineh, 31, had been on the path to a comfortable life in Beirut, with a job as a pharmacist in a private hospital and a teaching position at a university.
One last morning, he reached near dawn to get gas and waited in line for four hours, making it late for work.
His pharmacy often lacked blood pressure medications and even pain killers and antibiotics, he said, something that had never happened before.
So he had accepted a new job in the UAE, where his salary would be 10 times higher and he would not expect to fill his tank, he said.
“I have a good job and a position at university, but when it comes to life, you just can’t live here,” he said.
The currency crash has made it more expensive for traders to import medicines and the payment of subsidies by the central bank aimed at keeping medicines has been delayed, causing shortages.
Outside a Beirut pharmacy one last afternoon, a mother came looking in vain for acne medicine for one boy and prescription drops for another; a bank manager had failed to find any of the five medications his doctor had recommended his sister take for Covid-19; and a couple said they had been to nine pharmacies without finding medication for epilepsy for the woman and medication for Parkinson’s disease that the husband’s mother had been taking for decades.
At another pharmacy, Elie Khoury, 48, said he had managed to find just two of the five medications his doctor had recommended to treat the headaches that attacked him that night and kept him awake.
Until now, he had only searched in pharmacies within walking distance of the clothing store he managed because his car was low on gas. But he worried he would not find painkillers before the pharmacies closed for the day.
“If I do not find them,” he said, “I will just have to deal with the pain.”
Hwaida Saad contributed to the report.