Business

In 2020, Lebanon was spiraling. 6 months after the Beirut blast, half of the country lives below the poverty line and the health sector is crumbling.

Beirut Port Blast
Lebanon’s main grain silo, pictured days after the August 4 blast. Located near the facility storing the ammonium nitrate which caused the blast, the facility key to Lebanon’s economy was completely destroyed. August 20, 2020

  • Since December 17, an investigation into the Beirut port blast has stalled due to political interference.
  • At the same time, Lebanon’s economy and health sector have deteriorated during the pandemic.
  • “We lost everything we had and have nothing else to lose,” blast victim Mehieddine Lazkani said.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Mehieddine Lazkani, a Lebanese student and part-time hospital worker, is still reeling from the Beirut port blast. 

Six months ago, his father was killed in the blast and like many Lebanese people, since then, his personal and collective grief has only deepened.

Lazkani is the main breadwinner in his family, making less than $100 a month; all four of his siblings are students. 

“When it comes to the atmosphere at home, we’re still in a state of shock,” Lazkani told Insider. “We still have nightmares. Our father was the main pillar of our household.”

The Beirut port explosion on the evening of August 4 killed over 200 people, wounded thousands, and left much of the Lebanese capital destroyed. The explosion came following a fire in a port warehouse that had been storing over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate and other potentially explosive material since 2014.

The blast’s damage was colossal, and was an additional burden to the already ailing country, with a hefty repair bill of over $15 billion. In addition to the Beirut port being a key artery for the national economy, damage from the blast extended to residential buildings, schools, and hospitals.

Six months later, however, justice is not looming on the horizon. In fact, the investigation has staggered since December, after three ex-ministers and Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister were all charged and summoned for interrogation. Continuous investigative reports by journalists have revealed that a handful of politicians, as well as port, security, and judicial officials were all in the know about the ammonium nitrate. 

At the same time, Lebanon’s already spiraling economy has continued to worsen, and COVID-19 has strained hospitals. People are grasping to survive. 

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Families of the Beirut blast victims line up a series of portraits of lost family members by the entrance of the port during a protest. Beirut, Lebanon. December 4, 2020.

A spiraling economic crisis

Lebanon’s economy has been in dire straits since late 2019 but continued to spiral after the port blast.

The country’s economy is heavily service-based, and its local currency has been pegged to the US dollar at an artificial rate since the 1990s. 

Lebanese economist Dima Krayem says poor policy decisions, mismanagement, and nefarious banking practices led the country to collapse.

“These are deliberate decisions, not accidents,” Krayem told Insider, referring to the country’s banking system as the “biggest Ponzi scheme in modern history.” Even the World Bank calls it a “deliberate depression.” 

By the time the explosion rocked the capital, much of the impact of these policies was already hurting the country. A shortage of US dollars caused a panic at the banks in the fall of 2019, which began to impose withdrawal limits on people’s accounts. Over time the value of the local currency – the Lebanese lira – began to subside in the marketplace, with black market rates emerging and eventually delegitimizing the official rate.

Originally at 1,500LL to $1, the currency rate fluctuates almost daily, impacted by political and economic developments in the country. Today, that rate is almost at 9,000LL to $1. Accounts in US dollars can only be withdrawn in the local currency at a fraction of that rate, vaporizing the savings of many, and ultimately decimating what’s left of the country’s middle class.

The inflated black market rate and the ad hoc banking measures were an additional burden on those who survived the blast. Inflated costs of glass and other raw materials made repairing their own homes a difficult task. Those who couldn’t afford repairs had to wait for NGOs and charities, but many were kept waiting for months and tried to salvage whatever they could. 

The destruction of the port also helped set off a building food security crisis as the country’s main grain silo was decimated and given that Lebanon has heavily relied on food imports.

Two months prior to the blast, food inflation was already at a concerning 190%, but had skyrocketed to 423% by November, Krayem said. These are harrowing developments for a population whose savings were devalued and whose job market was decimated.

“Inflation disproportionately affects poorer households,” she told Insider. “Food items constitute the majority of poor household expenditure, so they’ve faced a largely deteriorating purchasing power, no income generation.”

Lebanon lacks a viable social safety net and often relies on private institutions. Krayem says that with about half the labor force in the informal economy, many households are left without any insurance at all. 

The country had to face the COVID-19 pandemic while on its last legs

Lebanon’s decades of poor fiscal policy and mismanagement has also impacted its ability to contain the virus, and impose proper lockdown measures.

Although it exploded in Beirut’s port, the blast’s figurative radius of destruction impacted the whole country.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city, had already been reeling from rampant economic inequality. In the weeks following the Beirut port blast in August, news began to surface of residents choosing to leave the country – by going to Cyprus by boat as a result of the blast and the dire economic situation.

In one horrifying case of that treacherous 40-hour journey, a small boat carrying a family was stranded at sea. Among the six who died were two children, and six others remain missing. 

Following a new countrywide lockdown in mid-January, as COVID-19 cases hit record numbers, protests erupted in Tripoli, as living conditions continued to worsen. Those protests soon turned into riots and clashes with security forces. One protester was killed after security forces opened fire on a crowd.

Protesters said a total lockdown without any economic compensation and social support was unsustainable, especially in this current economic climate.

“Usually, a total lockdown comes with a social safety network and assistance program to vulnerable schemes – subsidy schemes, unemployed benefits…etc,” Krayem told Insider. “Here, they’re just told to stay home.”

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Weeks after the blast and with little help from the state, Lebanese volunteers continued to clean up debris and provide critical services to those affected by the blast. August 20, 2020

‘The emergency rooms are full’

Three of the Lebanese capital’s major hospitals were destroyed following the blast. Hospitals that sustained less damage were suddenly met with a barrage of patients, many teetering between life and death. The night of the blast, a shaken medical resident told Insider that the scene was “apocalyptic.” Receptions, hallways, parking lots, and every nook and cranny turned into operating rooms. 

Through volunteer workers, fundraisers, and humanitarian aid, those hospitals were able to get back up on their feet but were soon hit with another catastrophe, as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed. 

“For some reason, the authorities tried to ease up [lockdown] measures to get hard currency during the festive season,” Dr. Firass Abiad of government-run Rafic Hariri University Hospital told Insider. “And that had huge consequences because it just made a bad situation much, much worse.” 

Cash-strapped Lebanon hoped that expats would return home – with lots of money to spend – to visit family and friends during the Christmas holiday season. The eased regulations were not only questionable in their efficacy, but they weren’t even being implemented in the first place. Jam-packed gatherings at bars and restaurants in Beirut were common – even in nightclubs. 

“Unfortunately, now the hospitals are overwhelmed. The emergency rooms are full,” Dr. Abiad said. 

Emergency rooms turned into makeshift COVID-19 ICUs, some surgeries were postponed, and patients with moderate cases of COVID-19 were sent home. There weren’t enough beds or enough oxygen tanks.

Suddenly, oxygen tanks were a hot commodity in the market, and – once those ran out – a black market surfaced selling them for even higher prices. 

The lockdown has been going on for almost a month, but circumstances aren’t improving. Dr. Abiad believes that the easing of measures in December and not closing the airport in January with the arrival of the more infectious UK variant played a pivotal role in the spread. 

“If this is correct – and there is circumstantial evidence that it is correct – it means to get where you want to go, you need a longer lockdown and stricter measures,” he said, admitting that the economic crisis and lack of a compensation strategy during lockdown has rightfully irked much of the population. 

It’s a huge dilemma for Lebanon.

Its economy continues to contract with no recovery on the horizon, while COVID-19 infection, death, and hospitalization rates continue to hit new records – even under lockdown. Six months after the blast, a battered Lebanon continues to face a handful of catastrophes, each more fatal than the other.

But time is of the essence; hospitals cannot continue to constantly run on overdrive. According to the Lebanese Order of Physicians, at least 500 doctors left the country in 2020.

“We cannot afford our staff to burn out and we have a long period ahead of us at work,” a concerned Dr. Abiad told Insider. “I can feel how tired they are.”

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Many residential buildings destroyed by the Beirut Port explosion were not tended to by the Lebanese government and charities a like. Karantina, Beirut, Lebanon. November 28, 2020.

Stateless and falling through the cracks

According to the UNCHR Lebanon, there are close to 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and tens of thousands of migrant workers and refugees of Ethiopian, Iraqi, Palestinian descent among others, making up almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population. 

“One of the most concerning indicators of the impact of the compounded crises Syrian refugees have been facing in Lebanon is the sharp increase in the proportion of households living under the extreme poverty line, reaching a staggering 89% at the end of 2020, up from 55% only a year before,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, the spokesperson for UNHCR Lebanon.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 80% of whom are living in urban settings and not in refugee camps, are now living on less than $200 a month, less than half the minimum wage in Lebanon.

And a joint report produced by the UNHCR, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme in the months after the blast found that 9 out of 10 Syrian refugees are now living below the extreme poverty line, and 96% are food insecure. 

Egna Legna, an organization that provides services for and advocates for domestic workers in Lebanon, has said that due to plummeting currency rates, lack of pay, and the pandemic, they are working to repatriate more domestic workers than ever before, as many are also homeless now.

Rabih Torbray, the CEO of relief organization Project Hope, has also raised alarms about vaccine distribution particularly for vulnerable populations in Lebanon.

“We’re starting to see some concerning trends in terms of who the vaccine should go to. The government made a statement that the vaccine would go to everybody on the ground in Lebanon, and they have to make sure that it actually does because it is the obligation of the government as the host government,” Torbray said. 

“If the Lebanese government can not do it by themselves, and we understand the constraints they’re under, it is the obligation of the international community to work with the Lebanese government to ensure equal access to a quality healthcare system, as well as the vaccine,” Torbray added, maintaining that mass access to vaccines may lag as long as the health sector is strained.

And the joint crises in Lebanon mean that no woe is exclusive, with 25% of Lebanese families living in extreme poverty and 50% living in poverty, according to the UNHCR.

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Six months following the blast, the Beirut Port has not been rebuilt yet and runs on minimal capacity. Beirut, Lebanon. February 1, 2021.

A simmering lack of political accountability

On August 10, after days of rageful protests following the blast and a forceful response by security forces, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government resigned.

Six months on, political infighting over cabinet seats means that there is still a caretaker government in place, ill-equipped to tackle the pandemic.

In addition to the political failures of the economy and the pandemic, stewing at the center of the collective pain and institutional ailments is the stalled investigation into what caused the tragic port blast.

“Six months later, unfortunately, our fears were warranted amid a stalled investigation that has been riddled with due process violations, that violates the rights of both the defendants who have been detained now for almost six months, and the victims who have no answers and no justice six months after this catastrophic event,” said Aya Mazjoub, Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.

As of December 17, the Lebanese Supreme Judicial Council’s investigation into the port blast is politically stalled.

Since August 13, 37 have been charged and 25 people have been detained, mostly low to mid-level customs, port, and security officials. 

A concerning uniform approach is being employed by the Lebanese judiciary and the judge at the center of the investigation, where each detainee, from welders and electrical workers to the Head of the Port, are being charged with the same litany of crimes, including; intentional homicide, unintentional killing, causing an explosion, disrupting the security of the port and the country, and polluting the environment. 

And according to Mazjoub, who has spoken with the lawyers representing the detainees, the judge has not communicated the charges or the evidence used to determine the charges with defendants, violating local and international law. 

And the political involvement in the investigation has raised serious concerns in Lebanon, especially as a final judgment will be made at a judicial council where 8 of 10 judges are appointed by the executive branch. 

On December 10, leading investigator Fadi Sawan charged Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab alongside three former ministers in connection with the blast. Diab and two of those ministers refused to appear for questioning, and Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi said he would not instruct security forces to arrest the accused government officials, even if the judiciary issued arrest warrants.

“It’s a ludicrous perversion of the principles of the independence of the judiciary,” Mazjoub said.

The investigation has been paused since December 17 when two of the ex-ministers filed a motion requesting that the Cassation Court, Lebanon’s highest court, replace the investigators, claiming that Sawan violated a local law by calling ex-ministers to a trial. 

At the time, now two months ago, Sawan said the investigation would pause for 10 days.

Mazjoub added that as the pushback to the investigation from the political establishment in Lebanon crystallizes, a more hopeful path to justice is through an international investigation.

The Lebanese government’s unwillingness to even allocate resources to the investigation is apparent, as Sawan has operated with two clerks, who take notes by hand

“Why isn’t the investigative judge working? We need him to work.” Lazkani, who lost his father in the blast, said, echoing a frustration felt by thousands.

“For the families of the martyrs, it’s not about whether six months have passed or not. If six years have passed, we won’t stop until we achieve justice. We won’t stay silent. We protested yesterday, and tomorrow we will protest,” Lazkani said. 

And the stalled investigation has provided a focal throughline for protesters to once again demand accountability from their government, and Lazkani is doing so advocating through the Beirut Port Blast Martyrs’ Families Committee.

“We lost everything we had and have nothing else to lose,” Lazkani said. 

“We don’t want anything more than a transparent and thorough investigation to reveal who was behind this,” he continued, “who brought the ammonium nitrate, who stayed quiet about it, who detonated it, everything.”

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