Forget packing clothes, perfume, sweets and the other usual gifts. As Lebanon experiences a severe shortage of medication, many Lebanese expats going home for summer vacation are packing their suitcases full of medicine for their families and friends.
Lebanon is still in the throes of an economic crisis, marked by the extreme devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which has led to unrest and shortages of essential goods. With pharmaceutical importers in debt to suppliers abroad and unable to open new lines of credit from the Bank of Lebanon, drug imports have been halted for more than a month.
In protest of the shortages, a pharmacist association organised a nationwide general strike for several days in early July.
To help alleviate the strain on their families and friends, Lebanese expats returning home for the summer have packed their suitcases with out-of-stock goods: essential medicines, first-aid supplies and even sanitary pads, as shown in photos posted on social networks.
Paulina Queralt, a singer living in France, made a call on social media asking any Lebanese expats heading to Beirut to take along a suitcase of medicine she prepared for a relative who was hospitalised after an accident. “I’m ready to pay for an extra suitcase,” she wrote in this tweet.
However, Beirut-based journalist Anaïs Renevier warned expats against sending expired medications to clinics in Lebanon, saying: “Here, medicines are not recycled. This will create additional pollution.”
‘I had to bring three months’ worth of diabetes medication for my mother’
Jessy El Murr lives in the United Arab Emirates and travelled to Lebanon on July 20.
I brought three suitcases fully of boxes of medicine, mostly for chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. There’s also eye drops, painkillers, medicine for fevers and diarrhoea in children, and more.
I had to bring three months’ worth of diabetes medication for my mother, because her condition may get worse. If she goes without medication, it would be a disaster.
“My suitcase, which I usually fill with gifts, dates and perfume for my relatives and friends in Lebanon,” wrote Jessy El Murr on Twitter on July 22.
Today [Wednesday, July 28] I went to a pharmacy and the shelves were nearly empty. An elderly man, who was standing right in front of me, started yelling at the pharmacist because his diabetes medication was out of stock. I felt sorry for him, so I took him home and gave him a box to hold him over.
Here, even essential medications are in short supply. Antibiotics, for example, are nowhere to be found.
When I arrived, my family told me that some rather dishonest distributors were stocking medication in their warehouses and refusing to sell them to pharmacies, waiting for the government to lift subsidies on medicines so they could sell them at full price. It’s dangerous, they’re playing with people’s lives.
The past few weeks, videos showing protesters breaking into warehouses filled with boxes of medication have been circulating on social media.
The video below, posted on YouTube on July 7, shows activists in a medication warehouse in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. They said they discovered boxes of medications – blood pressure pills, anti-inflammatory drugs and fever and cough medicines – that were out of stock at pharmacies.
‘In Lebanon, everything is in short supply: I even sent baby diapers and pacifiers’
Rima Tarabay, a psychologist, has started a solidarity drive initiative from Paris.
I posted a call for medication on my Twitter and LinkedIn pages. Plenty of people contacted me, not only Lebanese but French as well.
Pharmacies also donated medicine. It’s not uncommon for patients to return medicine to the pharmacy for one reason or another. The pharmacy is supposed to destroy them since it isn’t allowed to resell them. But instead, some pharmacists donated these medications for me to send to Lebanon.
Air France representatives in Beirut have allowed us to send one free suitcase a week, in solidarity. Yesterday [July 28], I was able to send a suitcase with a hundred boxes of paracetamol, some syringes and baby formula.
Rima Tarabay has filled several suitcases to send to Lebanon. This one includes around 50 boxes of Doliprane, a blood sugar monitor, three packs of sanitary napkins and a box of surgical masks.
A friend of mine in Lebanon who’s a fireman is in contact with pharmacists and doctors. He keeps track of what they need and ensures things get distributed all over Lebanon, not just in Beirut.
Sometimes, I get requests for specific medicines. For example, I sent Tegretol and Depakene, which treat epilepsy in children, to six people. We collected money from friends here to buy the medicine.
In Lebanon, everything is in short supply: I even sent baby diapers and pacifiers.
Right now, I am trying to get some medication for a person with cancer. You can’t find these types of drugs in pharmacies, only in hospitals.
So far, I’ve been able to send four suitcases and my goal is to keep sending one a week.
In addition to medication shortages, Lebanon has been experiencing food and fuel shortages alongside drastic power cuts for the last several months. The economic crisis in the country – which the World Bank has said is one of the world's worst since the mid-19th century – has pushed more than half the population below the poverty line.
>> Read on The Observers: Graffiti, rinse, repeat: how graffiti on a wall became a symbol for Lebanon’s frustration
The country has been paralysed by political crisis since former Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned after the explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. Ruling political parties have been unable to form a new government, despite the urgency posed by the country’s economic meltdown.
Nadjib Mikati, the new prime minister appointed on July 26, has promised to work with political parties to agree on the formation of a new government.