Lebanon: Blast rocks country devastated by multiple crises

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Before Tuesday’s blast at Beirut port, Lebanon has already endured a devastating 15-year civil war and is still embroiled in regional conflicts.

But the deadly explosion may just be straw that broke the camel’s back as it comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and an economic meltdown.

Lebanon’s health ministry reported the coronavirus was spreading rapidly and lockdown restrictions had been flouted.

Lebanon has recorded more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus, with 65 dead. While the numbers are comparatively low, they have spiked recently and spread to new parts of the country.

“Intensive care rooms at Rafik Hariri University Hospital are now full and, if the situation remains the same during the coming days, the hospital will not be able to accommodate the cases requiring intensive care,” Dr. Osman Itani, a pulmonologist and intensive care specialist, told Arab News on Sunday.

“The number of cases currently exceeds 100 per day, and this is a big problem that cannot be addressed by the health system as it is beyond its capacity.”

Lebanon is undergoing an economic crisis that has crippled the country, driven thousands overseas and sparked widespread protests against what is seen as a corrupt and incompetent political system.

Nearly half of the country’s population lives below the poverty line and 35% are out of work, according to official statistics.

October last year saw people in at least 70 towns across Lebanon protest against perceived government corruption, austerity measures and a lack of basic infrastructure – tap water is not safe to drink and electricity blackouts occur daily.

The protests, which were fiercely non-sectarian, paralysed the country and led to the resignation of Saad Hariri as prime minister.

However, little has changed since his exit, with blackouts worsening, the economic crisis deepening and food prices climbing by up to 80%.

In March, for the first time in its history, Lebanon announced it was defaulting on its debts. It has a national debt of US$92bn – nearly 170% of its GDP – one of the highest debt ratios in the world.

In May the country launched negotiations with the International Monetary Fund aimed at securing vital aid, under a plan to rescue the economy adopted by the government. But talks have since stalled.

Since March, prices of most goods have nearly tripled, while the value of the national currency has fallen by 80% and much of the country has ground to a halt.

Those who still have work are surviving month to month. Malls are empty. Poverty is soaring, crime is rising, and streets are incendiary.

The country has defaulted on one bond payment and a second is due soon. A fire sale of state assets is being mooted as a fallback. After that, there is little left to trade, except human capital, which is leaving Lebanon en masse.

Lebanon also relies heavily on imports for its food supply. Tobias Schneider, a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, says that Lebanon relies on imports for 90% of its wheat consumption – wheat is used to make the country’s staple flatbreads – most of which enters through a single terminal.

Local wheat production only covers about 10% of Lebanese consumption. The remainder is imported – principally from Russia. Almost all imported grain (80%+) enters trough that single terminal at the heart of the explosion.

The global financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic also impacted remittances, which are an important source of income – Lebanese living overseas outnumber those in the country – as well as the amount of aid available.

The destruction of Beirut’s port will devastate the country further. Lebanon has two land borders: one with war-torn Syria, the other with Israel, with which Lebanon is technically at war. Parts of the country were occupied by both Syria and Israel for close to two decades.

The Syrian conflict has sporadically spilled over into Lebanon, with several attacks rocking Beirut and the regions. The last of the foreign troops finally withdrew in 2005.

But the most visible impact of the Syrian war in Lebanon, a country of around 4.5 million people, has been the influx of an estimated 1.5 million refugees. Lebanon and international organisations have on several occasions sounded the alarm over the economic and social burden posed by this influx into a state ill-equipped to assist them. (Source: The Guardian)

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