A humanitarian co-ordinator in Lebanon has told how hyper-inflation means health care can cost twenty million lira for an operation.
Tarek Bizri warned that people without the funds to go private are dying because the public system lacks funds for equipment, staff and supplies.
He also told of an impending ‘catastrophe’, with power blackouts, fuel shortages and a severe lack of essential public services a daily reality.
Lebanon, which has a population of around six million, is experiencing one of the worst financial crises in the history of the modern world.
Economic collapse has been accompanied by hardships such as petrol and diesel shortages and a deadly shoot-out on the streets last week.
Bizri, who works for Islamic Relief in the capital Beirut, told Metro.co.uk: ‘The economic crisis affects all aspects of life for the Lebanese people and the refugees here.
‘With the exchange rate, one dollar used to be 1,500 lira, now there are 20,000 lira to a dollar, so all the prices are getting very, very expensive.
‘About 80 per cent of people are still getting paid at the 1,500 exchange rate, so they cannot afford to buy essential things. For example, as a teacher I would be getting paid about a million and a half lira a month, if I want to put fuel in my car, I need more than one million a month.
‘Every day we are suffering a shortage in food, water, electricity, medicine and fuel for transportation.’
The emergency project co-ordinator for Lebanon, who lives in the city of Sidon, to the south of Beirut, identified healthcare as one of most critical issues in a long list of chronic problems.
A severe lack of public facilities and staff is compounded by the astronomical level of inflation, which has been likened to rates in Weinmar Germany, putting private healthcare out of reach for many.
The UN estimates that 82 per cent of people in Lebanon cannot afford at least one essential service, such as healthcare, medicine and education – double the rate in 2019.
The married father-of-three, who works in Beirut, warned a growing number of people now have no access to hospital treatment.
‘The private hospitals are not working with insurance companies and they want the fresh dollar,’ he said.
‘The public hospitals cannot afford to buy equipment and like any government institution if something is broken, they cannot afford to fix it.
‘Forty per cent of the doctors and 30 per cent of the nurses have left Lebanon for the Gulf, Europe and the United States because they were being paid in lira.
‘Eighty per cent of people cannot afford to pay and if they go to public hospitals they may not have the right equipment.
‘We may reach the point where only 20 per cent of the population can go to hospital. For example, if you need an operation that requires medical equipment, say for heart surgery, it will cost 20 million Lebanese pounds.
‘The monthly average salary is between one and two million.
‘There have been three cases of people dying outside hospitals because they cannot go inside to be treated.’
Two weeks ago, the country’s slide into chaos flashed around the world with a 24-hour power outage after the main supply stations ran out of fuel.
The national grid shut down completely after the Zahrani and Deir Ammar plants ground to a halt. Blackouts remain a daily feature of life and even those who can afford private generators face shortages of diesel.
Electricity supplies via the national grid are only available for three out of every 24 hours, Bizri said.
‘We face blackouts every night,’ he told Metro.co.uk.
‘People are trying to get solar panels to cover the shortages but not everyone can afford them.
‘People are using batteries and the majority of people have candles.
‘There are no lights at night so people are not going out.’
Food security and the Covid pandemic are two areas being targeted by the charity, which was founded in the UK but works in more than 45 countries, helping people regardless of faith.
”We are trying as much as we can to target vulnerable groups and beneficiaries all over Lebanon,’ Bizri said.
‘We work with different nationalities, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian and we have another component which is empowerment through education, health and water projects.
‘We are trying to cover the gaps at certain times and in certain areas but the need is much bigger and we are afraid the situation will get worse.’
The refugee population includes 1.5 million Syrians and 300,000 Palestinians who represent more than a quarter of the population.
‘Many of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees are women and children,’ Bizri said.
‘We may reach a level where this group cannot afford baby milk or food. For now, they are only having one meal every one or two days, and it is only rice or some kind of cereal or potato.
‘There is no meat or fish and we may find a lot of people dying from hunger and malnutrition.
‘Until now, many people have stayed alive due to international NGOs and relatives outside Lebanon who are sending them fresh dollars. Without these resources we’ll be heading very quickly into a catastrophe.’
Political turmoil has also unfolded after a temporary government was installed following the devastating port explosion in Beirut that killed at least 218 people in August 2020.
A week ago, seven people died in armed violence reportedly involving Muslim and Christian groups. Hezbollah, a major political player in the country, blamed the Christian Lebanese Forces for the bloodshed at a demonstration in Beirut. The party denied the accusation.
For those caught up in the chaos, the fighting is another aspect to what a UN report in September termed a ‘painful reality’.
The organisation urged: ‘Support domestically made medicines to enable the poor to purchase them.
‘People living in extreme poverty should be provided with a health-care coverage that is publicly funded and that includes the cost of medicine and medical services.’