BEIRUT (AP) – Stores closing, businesses bankrupt and pharmacies with empty shelves: In Lebanon these days, fistfights break out in supermarkets as shoppers scramble for subsidized milk powder, rice and cooking oil.
Like almost all Lebanese, Nisrine Taha’s life has been turned upside down in the past year under the weight of the country’s crushing economic crisis. Anxiety about the future is eating her away.
Five months ago, she was fired from her job at the real estate company where she had worked for years. Her 21-year-old daughter cannot find work, forcing the family to rely on her husband’s monthly salary, which has lost 90% of its value due to the collapse of the national currency.
The family has been unable to pay the rent for seven months, and Taha worries that the landlord’s patience will not last forever. As the price of meat and chicken skyrocketed beyond their means, they changed their diet.
“Everything is very expensive,” he said.
Taha’s family is among hundreds of thousands of low-income and middle-class Lebanese who have been plunged into sudden poverty by the crisis that began in late 2019, a culmination of decades of corruption by one class. greedy policy that plundered almost every sector of the economy.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 25% of its value in recent weeks alone. Inflation and commodity prices have skyrocketed in a country that imports more than 80% of its commodities. The purchasing power of wages has fallen dramatically and savings have evaporated, all in addition to the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion last August in the port of Beirut that damaged parts of the capital.
More than half the population now lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, while an insoluble political crisis heralds a further collapse.
Alia Moubayed, CEO of Jefferies, a diversified financial services company, said the “sharp contraction in growth, coupled with hyperinflation and devaluation” has pushed more people into precarious jobs, raised unemployment levels and led to more 50% of the population below the poverty line, compared to an estimated third in 2018.
Lebanon has been without a government since the last one resigned in August, and leading politicians are unwilling to commit to the formation of a new cabinet that could forge a path to reforms and recovery. Street violence and sectarian tensions are on the rise.
“People are dying and nobody cares!” Taha said while visiting a cousin who owns a perfume shop on Beirut’s Hamra shopping street. Both wore masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Once a famous shopping district, known for its boutiques, bustling cafes and theaters, Hamra Street has changed amid the pandemic. On a recent day, many stores were closed, some due to closure measures, others permanently due to the economic crisis. Traders where they are still open complain that they sell almost nothing.
Beggars solicited money from passersby. A woman and her son sat on the sidewalk next to a drawing on a wall with the words: “We are all beggars.”
“It can’t get any worse,” said Ibrahim Simmo, 59, who runs a clothing store. Sales are down 90% compared to previous years. It was unable to sell its winter stocks during the virus shutdown that lasted nearly two months earlier in the year, and now the currency’s slide is making things worse.
Ibrahim Farshoukh, 28, said he barely pays the rent for his shop where he sells handmade leather bracelets and bags. Sometimes his wife stays behind while he goes outside, trying to sell bracelets to passersby. “The situation is unbearable,” he added.
The vast majority of the population is paid in Lebanese pounds, which means their income declines further as prices skyrocket and pensions evaporate. The crisis has also depleted foreign exchange reserves, prompting stark warnings that the Central Bank can no longer finance subsidies for some basic products, including fuel.
Videos on social media show fistfights in supermarkets as shoppers try to access subsidized products like cooking oil or powdered milk. In one video, armed members of one of Lebanon’s intelligence agencies check their ID cards inside a supermarket before handing over a bag of subsidized rice.
People who once lived comfortably are now unable to pay school fees and insurance premiums, or even eat well.
“I don’t remember the last time we ate meat. I can’t afford it, ”said Taha, whose husband is an airport maintenance worker. The family’s diet now consists mainly of lentils, rice and bulgur, he said.
The collapse of the currency has forced some grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses to close temporarily as officials warn of growing food insecurity.
Nabil Fahd, director of the supermarket owners association, told the local MTV station that people are hoarding products that stores can no longer restock; once something runs out, shop owners have to pay more in Lebanese pounds for new supplies. We are “in a very, very serious crisis,” he said.
The price of bread, the country’s main staple, rose twice in the past year and then earlier this month, bakers reduced the weight of a package of bread, without changing the price.
Taha blames Lebanon’s corrupt political class for bringing the small nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
Assem Shoueib left his job at a major Beirut newspaper in 2000 and moved with his family to France, where he opened a Lebanese restaurant near Paris. Walking down Hamra Street on a recent visit, the 59-year-old said he made the right decision.
“It was clear that the country was heading for collapse,” he said.