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Worry grips the Lebanese as the country’s economic meltdown accelerates.

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Worry grips the Lebanese as the country's economic meltdown accelerates.
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Worry grips the Lebanese as the country's economic meltdown accelerates.

Worry grips the Lebanese as the country’s economic meltdown accelerates.

 

Fistfights erupt in supermarkets in Lebanon these days as shoppers scramble for subsidized powdered milk, rice, and cooking oil as shops close, businesses go bankrupt, and pharmacies’ shelves clear.

Nisrine Taha’s life, like that of almost every other Lebanese, has been turned upside down in the last year due to the country’s debilitating economic crisis. Her fear of the future is eating away at her.

She was laid off from her position at the real estate company where she had worked for years five months ago. Her 21-year-old daughter is jobless, forcing the family to rely on her husband’s monthly income, which has lost 90% of its value due to the national currency’s collapse.

The family has been unable to pay their rent for seven months, and Taha is afraid that their landlord’s patience will run out. They changed their diet as the price of meat and chicken soared beyond their means.

“Everything is really expensive,” she expressed her dissatisfaction.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from the lower and middle classes have been thrown into poverty as a result of the crisis that began in late 2019 — the culmination of decades of corruption by a greedy political elite that pillaged nearly every sector of the economy.

Over the last few weeks, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 25% of its value. In a world where more than 80% of its basic goods are imported, inflation and prices of basic goods have skyrocketed. Salary purchasing power has plummeted, and savings have vanished, all on top of the coronavirus pandemic and a huge explosion at Beirut’s port in August that destroyed parts of the city.

According to the World Bank, more than half of the population now lives in poverty, and an intractable political crisis foreshadows further collapse.

According to Alia Moubayed, managing director at Jefferies, a diversified financial services firm, the “sharp contraction in productivity, coupled with hyperinflation and devaluation,” has pushed more people into precarious jobs, raised unemployment rates, and pushed more than half of the population into poverty, up from an estimated third in 2018.

Since the last government resigned in August, Lebanon has been without a government, with top politicians reluctant to negotiate over the creation of a new Cabinet that could pave the way for reforms and recovery. Violence on the streets and sectarian tensions are on the rise.

Taha was visiting a cousin who owns a perfume shop on Beirut’s commercial Hamra Street when she exclaimed, “People are dying, and no one cares!” Both wore masks to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

Hamra Street, once a popular shopping district known for its boutiques, bustling cafes, and theaters, has changed dramatically since the outbreak. Many stores were closed on a recent day, some briefly due to lockout measures, and some indefinitely due to the economic crisis. Merchants of those that are still open complain that they are only making a profit.

Beggars approached passers-by, asking for money. A mother and her child sat on the sidewalk next to a wall drawing that read, “We are all beggars.”

“It can’t get any worse,” Ibrahim Simmo, 59, the owner of a clothing store, said. When compared to previous years, sales have plummeted by 90%. During the nearly two-month-long virus lockdown earlier this year, he was unable to sell his winter stock, and now the currency crash is exacerbating the situation.

Ibrahim Farshoukh, 28, said his store, where he sells hand-made leather bracelets and bags, barely pays the rent. His wife sometimes sits at home while he goes out on the streets selling bracelets to passers-by. He continued, “The situation is intolerable.”

Since the vast majority of the population is paid in Lebanese pounds, their wages are declining much faster as rates rise and pensions vanish. The crisis has drained foreign reserves, triggering dire warnings that the Central Bank will no longer be able to support basic product subsidies, such as petrol.

Videos on social media show shoppers fighting in supermarkets over subsidized items like cooking oil or powdered milk. Armed members of one of Lebanon’s intelligence services can be seen in one video checking ID cards inside a supermarket before handing over a bag of subsidized rice.

People who used to be able to afford school fees and insurance premiums are now struggling to pay them, let alone eat well.

“I can’t recall when we last ate meat. Taha, whose husband works in airport maintenance, said, “I can’t afford it.” She said the family’s diet now consists primarily of lentils, rice, and bulgur.

As officials warn of increasing food shortages, several grocery stores, pharmacies, and other companies have been forced to temporarily close due to the currency collapse.

People are hoarding items, according to Nabil Fahd, the president of the supermarket owners’ group, who told the local MTV station that stores will no longer restock — if anything is sold out, storeowners must pay more in Lebanese pounds for new supplies. He claimed that we are in a “very, very serious crisis.”

Bread, the country’s main staple, has seen its price increase twice in the last year, and bakers recently decreased the weight of a pack of bread without raising the price.

Taha holds Lebanon’s corrupt political class responsible for the country’s near-bankruptcy.

In 2000, Assem Shoueib resigned from a prominent Beirut newspaper and relocated to France with his family, where he opened a Lebanese restaurant near Paris. On a recent visit back to Hamra Street, the 59-year-old said he made the right decision.

“It was evident the country was on the verge of collapsing,” he said.

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