Beirut blasts heap fresh woes on deeper Lebanon crisis

·4-min read

For the Lebanese people, who have watched helplessly as their economy has collapsed in recent months, the devastating explosion in Beirut is one disaster too many. The deadly blasts struck at a time when Lebanon's currency has plummeted against the dollar, businesses have closed en masse and poverty has soared at the same alarming rate as unemployment. "It's an earthquake," said Kamel Mohanna, founder of the Amel Association International charity founded during the 1975-1990 civil war. "I've been working in humanitarian aid in Lebanon for 47 years, and I've never seen anything like this," he said as hospitals were overflowing with wounded and the capital was reeling in shock. For months already, many Lebanese struggling in the country's worst economic crisis in decades have turned to charities once largely dedicated to the nearly two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. Amid the economic turmoil, cash shortages, pandemic and street protests, Lebanon's middle class -- teachers, civil servants, nurses -- have already seen their lives turned upside down. Now, after Tuesday's massive explosions at Beirut's port which killed more than 100 people and wounded thousands, officials estimate that an additional 300,000 Beirut residents will be left homeless. And the disaster damage bill for an indebted country that was already asking for help from international donors is expected to range between $3.0 billion and $5.0 billion dollars. - 'Asking for alms' - Maya Terro, founder of Food Blessed, a local charity that distributes food aid, now expects a huge additional demand. Beirut's port, which was flattened by the explosions, is the main gateway for imports. "Lebanon imports 80 percent of its food," Terro said. "Immediately I thought: empty supermarket shelves, increased prices due to shortages." Inflation of basic food goods already soared by 109 percent between September and May, according to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization warned Tuesday that, after huge wheat stockpiles at the port were destroyed, "we fear that we will soon have a problem with the availability of flour for the country". Even before the explosions, life was a daily struggle against poverty and hopelessness, Gaby, a former civil servant in his fifties living in a suburb of Beirut, told AFP several days before the disaster. Gaby, who used to fire up the grill twice a month for a family barbecue, said he now has no choice but to go to a charity to get rice and pasta. "I feel like I am asking for alms," he said. With hyperinflation, neither his pension -- worth $1,600 at official rates, but just $300 on the black market -- nor his work as a taxi driver or his wife's salary as a nurse are enough to support family needs. "We deprive ourselves of a lot," said the father of four. "We used to have meat four times a week. Today, nothing at all, not even chicken." - 'Everything is difficult' - Nearly half of Lebanese now live below the poverty line, according to official statistics. Economic difficulties were a key driver of mass protests that began last year against a political system widely seen as corrupt and inept. The economic crisis has been compounded by the loss of income caused by restrictions to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. Two-thirds of Lebanese households have seen their income drop, according to a WFP survey in June, while two-fifths of those questioned had gone into debt to buy food or pay rent. WFP, working with the government, was planning to boost aid to help 697,000 people this year, up from just under 140,000 in 2019, spokesperson Malak Jaafar told AFP before the explosions. Amel Association International said that, even before the blasts, it was already seeing a rise in numbers of Lebanese citizens seeking aid in its more than 20 centres, especially for its medical services. "The first three months of 2020 saw a 30 percent increase in the number of Lebanese beneficiaries," said health programme coordinator Mohammed Al-Zayed. "In Lebanon the healthcare is based on the private sector. As a result, services are expensive, and people have reached a point where they can no longer pay." Doctors Without Borders in June received 81 Lebanese patients, about three times the normal number, said Axelle Franchomme, medical director of the Bar Elias hospital in the eastern Bekaa region. One of those patients was Ihsane, a woman in her thirties, who had turned to the medical charity for their free gynaecological surgery due to a lack of funds. "My husband has been out of work for a while," said Ihsane, explaining how they had already sold one of their two cars to raise cash. "Everything has become difficult, everything is expensive," she said. "We cannot have the same life as before".