Stalked by poverty and hunger, Lebanon loses any remaining sense of glamour

Lebanon’s economic crisis, compounded by but not rooted in the coronavirus lockdown, means many people can no longer afford food

May 13, 2020
A Hezbollah food distribution centre. When the state fails, political forces step in. Photo: Lizzie Porter
A Hezbollah food distribution centre. When the state fails, political forces step in. Photo: Lizzie Porter

Behind a rough metal door, and rows of washing hanging up to dry, Fatima Khaled Al-Saad sits on a sagging grey sofa and leans forward to speak.

“The way people have started to think is, ‘what am I going to eat today?’” she says. Her 13-year-old son Abdallah was diagnosed with a brain tumour five years ago, forcing his mother to give up work as a teacher. Frail, he now lies underneath a mosquito net next to her. The only motion is the flicker of his long eyelashes and the occasional glance at the blaring television.

Life has long been difficult in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in south Beirut, where Fatima lives down a narrow side street draped with cobweb-like electricity wires. Poverty, poor job prospects and violence—armed skirmishes and domestic abuse—are facts of life.

But Lebanon’s biggest financial and economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, compounded by the coronavirus lockdown, means that life has become even tougher.

Fatima is now struggling with a sharp increase in the price of basic items for Abdallah. The nappies he needs to wear used to cost 7,000 LBP a packet ($4.66 at the official exchange rate) but in the past few months have more than doubled to 15,000 LBP ($10). Affording food is becoming more and more difficult, too.

“Today I’ve gotten hold of cabbage. Meat has become very expensive, so I buy half a kilo and split it up to make it last,” she says, explaining how she will boil the greens and rice for her evening meal. “My sister and I once went to a shop and she bought grilled chicken. It was 15,000 LBP. I said, ‘I can’t buy it—my son’s nappies are the priority.’”

The Lebanese lira has lost more than half of its value against the US dollar since mid-2019. In a country reliant on imports, that explains the steep price rises, which come as bankruptcies and layoffs multiply at an alarming rate. Some 220,000 private sector jobs were lost between October 2019 and February 2020, according to one survey.

Lebanon has long projected an image of itself as a liberal hub of nightlife, creativity and freedom. A normal summer sees thousands of Lebanese expats return home to sun themselves at exclusive beach clubs, drink at rooftop bars, and retreat to family villas in cedar forest-draped mountains.

But the image of a Mediterranean playground has masked years of gross economic mismanagement and state corruption, whose seams run deep. The consequences have come to a head over the past six months: the government defaulted on a $1.2bn debt payment in March, and banks imposed arbitrary withdrawal limits—illegally, experts say—as depositors rushed to remove their savings from a collapsing system.

A lockdown imposed in mid-March had more or less successfully stemmed cases of Covid-19. As of 11thMay, the country of around six million people had 845 confirmed cases and 26 deaths, although a spike in infections stemming from repatriation flights has forced authorities to tighten movement restrictions that had previously been eased. But the health precautions have done nothing to ease predictions of what the World Bank calls a “prolonged and sharp” recession.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the financial institution predicted a 50 per cent poverty level for Lebanon, and experts say that could now rise to 80 per cent. That doesn't even include refugee populations: in Beirut more than 65 per cent of Palestinians like Fatima and 73 per cent of Syrians already live in poverty, according to figures from UN agencies.

“We are already seeing people dying because they cannot afford to go to hospitals or clinics,” said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former Lebanese minister of economy and industry, who also predicted that people could start to die of hunger. “The most vulnerable parts of the population, including small children, will become malnourished. What we are talking about is Third World and beyond.”

With households increasingly unable to foot their bills, growing numbers of people are relying on food handouts. FoodBlessed, a non-profit food relief organisation founded in 2012, has seen requests for aid “increase staggeringly” since the Covid-19 outbreak, according to co-founder Maya Terro. Appeals have leapt from 50-100 a day before the shutdown to reach up to 1,000.

“A lot of the families that come to us were either poor and became poorer, or are people who were considered middle-class and are now placed in the lower class,” Terro continues. “These families used to manage before, and now they have huge difficulty making ends meet.”

Others are racking up debts with local businesses to get by. “The first shop that gave us credit stopped because this is the second month we’ve taken from them and I can’t pay,” says Hiyam Cheaito, who lives with her husband Ali, a taxi driver, in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“The internet is 50,000 lira a month,” she says. “I got it because now all the children’s classes are online [due to the coronavirus lockdown]. I can’t afford to pay it, but at the same time I can’t stop it, because it’s for the children’s education.”

Political actors and opportunists have long provided services when efforts by the Lebanese state are insufficient or non-existent. Now is no exception. Among them is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Islamist and militant group widely designated as a terrorist organisation, including by the UK and US governments. In the southern city of Tyre last month, volunteers at a Hezbollah-run aid distribution centre in a half-built mosque complex packed sugar, rice, tinned beans and oil into cardboard boxes, ready for dispatch to thousands of families.

“Ever since it was established, Hezbollah has been more than a political or military party: it has worked in all fields, including social work and healthcare, in solidarity with people,” said Sheikh Haider Haider, Hezbollah’s social work director for south Lebanon.

These political interventions haven’t been met with universal approval. “It reminds me of Trump putting his name on cheques going to people in the United States,” said Nasser Saidi, referring to the news last month that US federal government aid handouts would be signed by the president. “People will take the aid—they need it—but people understand that it is corruption, waste, and it has got us where we are.”

The Lebanese government has put forward an economic rescue plan that includes a request for $10bn in financing from the International Monetary Fund, although the proposal has been rejected by banks, which are coming up with their own strategy. There is no guarantee that an IMF bailout will be granted, especially if Lebanon fails to make public sector reforms that international donors have long demanded.

Back in the Shatila Palestinian camp, Fatima insists that Lebanon’s current crises are worse than its 15-year-long civil war. “The whole of Lebanon is hungry, and whoever is in this ship will drown,” she says, with a black laugh. “What can I say? In this boat, you drown.”


By Lizzie Porter in Beirut