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BEIRUT – Ibrahim Arab queues in the hot summer sun for several hours a day to buy gasoline for his taxi.
When he’s not working, the 37-year-old father of two drives from one pharmacy in Beirut to another in search of baby food for his 7-month-old son – whatever he can find – even though the baby developed severe diarrhea and vomiting an unknown brand.
He worries what would happen if his kids got really sick. Once some of the best in the region, Lebanon’s hospitals are struggling amid the country’s economic and financial crisis, which has resulted in hours of daily power outages, a shortage of diesel fuel for emergency power generators, and a lack of medical equipment and medicines.
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After 20 months of suffering with no foreseeable end, a new reality is beginning for most of the estimated 6 million people in Lebanon: days full of major bottlenecks – from spare parts for cars to medicines, fuel and other basic goods in the import-dependent country.
“My life has been difficult, and now the gasoline crisis has only made things worse,” Arab said recently. He works as a second job in a grocery store in Beirut to survive, but his monthly income in Lebanese pounds has lost 95% of his purchasing power.
The crisis that began in late 2019 has its roots in decades of corruption and mismanagement of a post-civil war political class that has amassed debt and done little to boost local industries, forcing the country to cut almost everything on imports to leave.
The Lebanese pound has crashed, banks have restricted withdrawals and transfers, and hyperinflation has flared up.
The shortage of liquidity is crippling the government’s ability to provide fuel, electricity and basic services. Dollar scarcity is reducing imports of medical devices and energy.
The fuel shortage in particular has raised fears that the country could be paralyzed. Even private generators, which the Lebanese have been using for decades, have to be switched off for hours to save diesel.
“We are really in Hell,” tweeted Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which leads the country’s coronavirus fight. Despite a heat wave, the hospital decided on Monday to turn off the air conditioning except in the medical departments.
Power outages have affected internet connections in various cities, while bakeries warn that they may have to close due to fuel shortages.
The situation has come to a critical point in recent weeks with fights and gunfire at gas pumps, including one in the northern city of Tripoli, where the son of a gas station owner was killed.
Many Lebanese blame the inability or unwillingness of their leaders to work together to resolve the crisis.
The country has had no functioning government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet resigned days after the massive explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 that killed 211 people and injured more than 6,000. The catastrophic explosion was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored there for years.
Residents expect the economy to get worse, so they are looking for ways to adapt and cope.
To avoid hours of waiting, some people pay to refuel their car for them. Others take their laptops and work from inside their vehicle in the block-length queues known as “the lines of humiliation”.
Many rely on relatives and friends abroad to send medicines and baby food. Those who can afford it fly to nearby countries for a day or two to stock up for months.
A man who works in solar said business is booming, people are tired of the government’s decades-long promises to fix Lebanon’s electricity grid.
Last week, Diab approved the financing of energy imports at a rate higher than the official exchange rate, effectively reducing fuel subsidies in the face of worsening scarcity. The move, which took effect on Tuesday, is expected to temporarily ease the crisis, despite prices soaring 35%.
Some people have been hoarding fuel for fear that prices will almost double, and this has contributed to its scarcity. Such a price hike will make fuel bills unaffordable for many in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty.
Others are smuggling it into neighboring Syria, which has its own fuel crisis and where gasoline prices are five times higher than in Lebanon. But that also contributes to the shortage in Lebanon.
The crisis has led angry residents across the country to block roads in protest.
They confiscated several tank trucks in northern Lebanon and distributed free petrol to passers-by. Another group confiscated a truck full of milk powder and distributed its contents.
“Our business has become a job of mass destruction,” said Ahed Makarem, 24, who works at a gas station in the coastal village of Damour, south of Beirut.
As he spoke, a line of hundreds of cars slowly moved along the freeway. Dozens of workers activated the station’s 12 pumps to fill vehicles and scooters. Motorists were limited to 20 liters (approximately 5 1/4 gallons).
Makarem said his 13-hour shift starts at 6 a.m. and he barely has time to eat or sit. Fist fights have broken out over the past few weeks as some people tried to queue up, he said, adding that when the station closes at 7 p.m., police sometimes have to step in to fend off angry customers who waited in vain.
Many fear it will only get worse in the months ahead as central bank reserves plummet and no solution is in sight.
On Wednesday, Parliament approved a ration card scheme that would give around 500,000 poor families about $ 93 a month over a year. It is not yet clear how the project, estimated at $ 556 million to replace the subsidy system, will be funded.
Arab, the taxi driver, will arm himself if the interim solutions fall away and the crisis intensifies.
He recently had to fix the brakes on his car and his engine needed a spare part. That cost him more than double the monthly minimum wage in Lebanon.
“I wish I had the opportunity to go. This land is uninhabitable, ”said Arab.