The financial crisis currently gripping Lebanon is endangering the health and lives of its people as hospitals will soon be unable to provide patients with life-saving surgery and urgent medical care, medical practitioners and public officials warned.
The crisis stems from the government’s failure to reimburse private and public hospitals, including funds owed by the National Social Security Fund and military health funds, making it difficult to pay staff and purchase medical supplies. In addition, a dollar shortage has restricted the import of vital goods and led banks to curtail credit lines, reported Human Rights Watch.
“The Lebanese government’s failure to pay its bills to medical facilities seriously endangers the health of the population,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Sleiman Haroun, the head of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, told Human Rights Watch that the Finance Ministry has not paid private hospitals an estimated US$1.3 billion in dues since 2011, compromising their ability to buy vital medicines and medical supplies and to pay staff salaries.
The ministry disbursed most of the funds owed up until 2017, Haroun said, but private hospitals received only half of what was owed them in 2018 and not a single payment in 2019.
Private hospitals account for 82 percent of Lebanon’s healthcare capacity. Public hospitals also have not been receiving payments from the government.
Medical suppliers who provide equipment for both public and private hospitals said that they have not been able to import medical equipment since September due to the shortage of dollars and the absence of government regulations that would prevent banks from arbitrarily restricting money transfers outside the country.
“If [this crisis]isn’t resolved, people will go into the hospital and die inside,” Salma Assi, a spokesperson for medical equipment importers, told Human Rights Watch.
On November 16, private hospitals carried out an unprecedented “warning strike” to sound the alarm about the shortages they were facing and to urge government officials to pay their arrears.
The head of the Order of Nurses, Mirna Doumit, told Human Rights Watch that nurses are threatening an open-ended strike if private and public hospitals continue to delay payment of salaries or cut salaries in half, as some hospitals had warned they would have to do.
On November 26, the caretaker health minister, Jamil Jabak, warned of “a major lack of supplies and equipment, and if this continues, we could reach a very dangerous situation.” Haroun told Human Rights Watch that medical equipment shortages are “causing many problems in surgeries.
Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires it to take steps to achieve “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
The right to health includes access to “timely and appropriate health care” and “functioning public health and health-care facilities, goods and services, as well as programmes, have to be available in sufficient quantity within the State party.” (Source: HRW)