Pharmacies go on strike; 22-hour power cuts in crisis-hit Lebanon

Filed on July 9, 2021
A man speaks with a pharmacist through a closed door after the pharmacies went on strike in Beirut. — AP

Importers say hundreds of medicines are now out of stock, as the central bank owes suppliers abroad millions of dollars

Pharmacies went on strike over medicine shortages and two major power stations ground to a halt for lack of fuel on Friday in crisis-hit Lebanon, in the latest sign of economic collapse.

Politicians have for 11 months failed to form a government in Beirut that would instigate desperately needed economic reforms, and the local currency has plunged to a record low against the dollar on the black market.

Lebanon’s foreign currency reserves are fast depleting and the cash-strapped state is struggling to afford subsidies on key imports including medicines and fuel, sparking fears of renewed social unrest.

Importers say hundreds of medicines are now out of stock, as the central bank owes suppliers abroad millions of dollars and they can no longer open new lines of credit.

The association of pharmacy owners announced a “general open-ended strike across Lebanon” from Friday morning.

Ali Safa, a member of the association, said 80 per cent of pharmacies stayed closed in Beirut and other big cities, and around half had done so in other areas.

An AFP photographer said most chemists had closed along the densely populated coastline north of Beirut, while another said many also remained shut in the capital’s southern suburbs.

The financial crisis has caused poverty levels to rise and affect more than half the population, with state power cuts of up to 22 hours a day across the country.

On Friday, the state electricity company said the Zahrani and Deir Ammar power stations had gone offline as they were unable to access fuel shipments stuck off the coast because of pending payments.

Water facilities in the north and south warned that they were reducing distribution to the minimum because of power cuts and low fuel levels.

The local currency, the Lebanese pound, was selling for a record 19,500 pounds to the greenback on the black market, less than a tenth of its official rate.

As Lebanon faces what the World Bank says is probably one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 1850s, even painkillers and infant milk formula are difficult to find at the chemists.

The Lebanese have for months been harnessing social media to ask for help, including from friends and families abroad.

Beirut resident Elie, 48, said he had visited five pharmacies earlier in the week in the search for drugs to treat high uric acid.

“They kept telling me there was none left, or that the suppliers had not delivered the medicine,” he said.

Pharmacy owner Safa said that over the past two months suppliers had gradually stopped making deliveries.

He called for the health ministry to approve a list of priority medicines which it would continue to subsidise.

Suppliers could then sell all the other drugs according to the black market rate, he said, in order not to make a loss.

The central bank said on Monday it would earmark $400 million to support key products including medicine and flour.

The head of the medicine importers’ syndicate said the bank had promised it $50 million a month in subsidies for medicine — just half of importers’ current bills for that period.

Lebanon’s government resigned in August last year after a devastating explosion at Beirut port killed more than 200 people, but it has stayed on in a caretaker capacity throughout the political deadlock.

Lebanese from all religious and social backgrounds staged mass street protests in autumn 2019 against a political class they accuse of being both incompetent and corrupt.

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