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Beirut — Christine, a 28-year-old nurse in the Lebanese army, used to spend about a quarter of her salary on life-saving medication for her parents who both have severe heart conditions.
She was able to manage until Lebanon’s cash-strapped government this week cut back subsidies on medicines. Now, she says the price tag will eat up her entire wage and that of her 65-year-old father, who works a night-time security job.
“No family can afford this,” she told Reuters, using only her first name due to regulations barring army personnel from speaking to the media. “The government ... came [to power] to save the country but are leaving us not just to our fate, but to our slow and painful death.”
Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet, which took office in September, has rolled back subsidies on basic goods including fuel and now medication, but has failed to provide an increasingly impoverished population with a social safety net.
Lebanon’s economic meltdown, driven by endemic state corruption, waste and mismanagement, has been dubbed one of the worst in the world: three quarters of the population now suffer from poverty according to the UN. But a UN poverty expert said last week that Lebanese officials were in a “fantasy land” and had no sense of urgency to ease the crisis.
Health minister Firass Abiad told Reuters a range of subsidies remained in place for many medicines, including the most expensive and crucial medications, and people could find some free drugs at primary healthcare centres.
Abiad lamented the absence of a government safety net as “a crime” but said the subsidy move was based on financial necessity and would lead to drugs missing for months to become available within two weeks.
“This is the first time someone is trying to find realistic solutions that are sustainable,” he said.
‘People will be harmed a lot’
Overall, medical subsidies have now been reduced from $120m per month to about $35m, said Assem Araji, head of parliament’s health committee. He said the change was “worrying” and “people are going to be harmed. Harmed a lot”.
The hike hit medications crucial for chronic diseases, such as insulin, which has increased in price fourfold from about 180,000 Lebanese pounds ($120 at the official rate or about $8 on the black market) to 730,000 pounds — meaning it now costs more than the monthly minimum wage.
“People are having episodes of high blood sugar that take them to the edge of death,” pharmacist Ali Hawilo said of insulin shortages.
Several Beirut pharmacists said that they had not yet seen an increase in supply of medicines and they worry that most people may be unable to buy them.
Rabih Chaar, manager at Chaar Pharmacy, said a customer had a panic attack in his shop this week when she couldn’t find crucial medicine for a mental illness.
“Soon there will be more medicine, but people won't be able to afford it,” he said, as customers entered his pharmacy with lists of drugs only for resigned staff to tell them they had almost none of the products in stock.
Some customers, upon being quoted the new prices, turned away or asked for alternatives.
Hussein Sheikh, a 75-year-old chauffeur, said he had to borrow money from his boss to afford medication for his chronic asthma after the price jumped from 37,000 pounds to 126,000.
“There is no greater theft than this,” he said. “No-one says anything, and no-one seems to be concerned.”
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.