One Year Ago, Beirut Exploded. Now the Situation is Worse.
It was midnight and I was driving my husband to the hospital for a medical emergency. I travelled through a city cloaked in darkness. We hadn’t had electricity in Beirut for days. The street lights were off and the roads were empty in a place that once vibrated with life 24/7.
My eyes filled up with tears, not only because the man I love was in pain, but because the realization hit me that it has been almost a year since one of the strongest explosions known to humankind rocked my beloved hometown.
My husband ended up spending a week in critical condition at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, one of the best medical institutions in the country. The talk at the hospital was all about the exodus of nurses and doctors from the country. At least 1,000 medical professionals have left Lebanon since the August blast. We are a country proud of our healthcare system and now our professionals are leaving in droves.
When my husband was discharged, he was prescribed medications that are important to his recovery. Despite my intense efforts, I couldn’t find some of the medicines. And I have colleagues who are licensed pharmacists!
So, here we are, one year after the port explosion on August 4, 2020. We might have expected to be celebrating the reconstruction of Beirut. In reality, though, there’s very little that’s good to talk about. The situation is miserable.
The most frustrating part is that we see no indication of action to fix the problem. Officials continue to disagree over the number of cabinet ministers that should be in the government and what constitutes a fair representation of various sects and political parties. So, nations and international finance organizations that promised financial assistance to rebuild Lebanon are still waiting for the country to establish a government to enact credible reforms – criteria that need to be met before they provide aid.
It’s a waste of time and money to wait for the government to act. Civil society, volunteers and non-governmental organizations like Anera are already acting but we can’t do it alone. It is critical for the international community to step up and help us now before it is too late.
Electricity is scarce because the state-run electricity company has no money to purchase fuel. Loans to the electricity sector account for nearly half of Lebanon’s public debt. And still the electricity cuts get longer.
Without electricity from the network we depend on generators, which are now becoming overwhelmed. Last week, the generators in Anera’s office building stopped so we had to send our staff home at noon. Those lucky enough to have some electricity at home continued to work.
The generators run on petrol, which is in short supply too. A new sight in the city, and across the country, is long, long lines to the gas stations, where things are very tense and fights often break out. Somehow, though, Beirut still manages to have traffic congestion. The city is notorious for traffic jams and we’re still holding true to that.
I sometimes wonder where everyone is going in Beirut, given the fact that so many shops and other businesses are closed.
When my journeys through the city take me past the destroyed port, I cannot help but wonder how our politicians sleep at night. A year after the explosion, we hear nothing about an investigation into what happened. How can so-called public officials be so unaccountable to the public? No one has been punished. And no large-scale reconstruction has been conducted. While there’s no rubble on the streets anymore, you still see hundreds of houses and office buildings that need extensive rehabilitation. Usually this is work that a government would undertake. In the meantime, many residents still can’t go home.
Even the port is still only partially functioning.
The Lebanese lira continues to fluctuate against the dollar. It’s anyone’s guess what the currency will be worth from day to day. Shops often close when these fluctuations happen, because they didn’t know what new prices to set. This happens a lot and has become another new norm for us.
It saddens me to think that, during the protests of October 2019, tens of thousands of young people got out on the streets and demonstrated. There was so much optimism in the air. They really believed change was possible. Now, many of those same people are leaving. The streets are quiet. People are not protesting. Instead, there is a sense of desperation. The confidence that positive change will come has evaporated. People are beginning to look to a future outside of Lebanon.
The international community must support civil society in Lebanon
On a public level, not much has been done, but individual families, nonprofits and volunteers have stepped up to rebuild and revive homes and businesses. Civil society is bonding together to fill some of the gaps left by the government. Just this last week, for instance, my organization, Anera, finished renovations on 200 houses in Beirut. We also delivered 76 shipments of medicines to Beirut hospitals in the past year. Our work is meaningful and impactful, but we’re not the government. [Read Anera’s Beirut situation report.]
This has been happening for years. Civil society has always provided a myriad of vital services. But, in the past 18 months, the situation has become untenable – with COVID, economic collapse, a shortage of petrol, and a faltering medical system. The state is failing: everything is collapsing around us. While we wait for our own government to wake up and start taking some real action to make things better, people suffer.
Though organizations like Anera cannot replace the government, it is important to stress that, without these efforts, the situation would be far worse, and will get worse still. We in civil society are working with communities to save lives and give hope.
Food and health security must be a priority now. A recent World Bank report has stated that almost half of the Lebanese population now falls below the national poverty line. The World Food Program found that 41 percent of households reported difficulty in obtaining food and other basic needs. Medicine imports in Lebanon are almost completely halted as of July 4, and the importers now lack the medicines required to treat chronic diseases. The central bank must pay more than $600 million in promised payments to international suppliers for subsidized medicines in order to resume imports.
The international community must do more to support civil society actors in Lebanon. Help Lebanon’s vibrant and effective non-governmental institutions to deliver what the government is not, from rebuilding homes and small businesses, to distributing cash assistance to the growing ranks of the impoverished so that they have some hope of covering rent, food and healthcare. We cannot sit idly by and watch my country die while the people of Lebanon suffer. We will not give up. We cannot give up. There is too much to do.
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