Beirut lives from day to day. As night falls, the city shuts down inside humble homes. As soon as the sun sets, silence takes over the alleys of the Tanak neighborhood, one of the poorest. By the light of a candle, Abdel Latif places the pills he has to take before going to sleep on a wooden table. In total, 15 drugs every day.
“I came here 11 years ago. They recommended it to me because these rooms are very cheap, ”says Latif, 76, suffering from coronary heart disease. He lives alone in a room of a few square meters where he sleeps, cooks and cleans. Among his belongings, there is a small transistor and the photos of what was his other life. For many years he worked as a truck driver, until he became ill and lost his job. He was left alone when his wife died after failing to undergo a kidney transplant operation. He had been the donor. “I only have my son, but he has to support his family,” he says, pointing to the portrait of his grandson.
“We are living in times of war, but without war,” defines the situation caused by one of the worst crises in Lebanon in recent history. The economy has collapsed: in two years the local currency, the Lebanese pound, has lost about 90% of its value. And in recent months the shortage of medicines and fuel has intensified. Added to this are the aftermath caused by the covid-19 pandemic and the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020. “The political crisis in the country greatly affects the critical situation we are experiencing in the Ministry of Health. Without a government, the ministries cannot function well ”, affirms the Minister of Health, Firass Abiad, in statements to EL PAÍS. “Like any country in a difficult situation, we need help. Spain has also helped us ”, he adds.
Medicines are inaccessible to many people. The prices of medicines do not stop rising. Latif has been wandering around the city all morning to sell a DVD player and to buy a box of drugs that he had run out of. “A month ago this package of Praxilene for arterial circulation cost 10,000 pounds (about four euros) and now it costs 100,000,” he says. In the last year, drugs have been going up in price from week to week. From the Union of Pharmacists they assure that the Ministry of Health has progressively lifted subsidies to buy medicines and that this has caused a 400% increase in the price of drugs for chronic diseases. Pharmacies do not take orders.
Latif thinks more about death than life. “I’m not worried about going hungry, what I can’t bear is the pain that invades me when I don’t take the medicines,” he acknowledges. His face reflects the infinite weariness of a society that has historically experienced crisis after crisis and now seems to have entered free fall. “This government is like Al Capone,” he says wryly. According to the Corruption Perception Index published by the Organization for Transparency International, Lebanon ranks 149 out of 179, that is, among those with the most corrupt policy.
Latif’s story is that of many older people who feel abandoned by institutions. He does not receive any pension or subsidy. He has not seen a doctor for four months because he cannot pay money that he no longer has. Put your prescription drugs in your pocket to beg for help on the streets of Beirut. The radio is his only companion, he has not yet lost the reference to his context: “I am not the only one. The other day they mentioned that the United Nations estimates that 88% of the Lebanese population is poor. “
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The drug crisis has forced the reorientation of the work of social organizations such as Basecamp. Created after the port disaster to provide first aid or refurbish destroyed homes, it now focuses on health care. “We do not give any medicine without a prescription, but they have no cost for patients,” explains Melody Risie, one of the volunteers of this NGO.
Their registry reflects that they have attended 1,246 people since last August. They are sustained largely with the help of the Lebanese diaspora. “Especially Lebanese living in France and Dubai,” he explains. On the other side of the door, a queue of people awaits their turn. Guiene Nicole is a teacher and needs medicine for her two children. There is also Hussein Jamis, a man who sleeps on the street and had no possibility of being treated in a health center. He was alerted by a wound on his forehead: “I thought it was a simple wound, then I came here, they did a study and it turns out that it is cancer,” he says. He goes three times a week to have the cures done.
This solidarity project is supported by 25 people, including medical, pharmacy and nursing personnel. Not only do they attend emergencies, they also monitor patients. They have an electronic system that allows them to prescribe generic drugs, they explain that the most demanded are those related to diseases such as hypertension or diabetes.
The pharmacies every day receive dozens of people who ask about the price and leave without buying the medicines. The queues have also increased at the doors of the laboratories. The cost of private healthcare has skyrocketed and public healthcare cannot cope. Antoinette Assaf is the coordinator of the primary care center in the Ruesat Yaida area, on the outskirts of the capital. Another humble neighborhood in which 95% of the population lives below the poverty line.
This center receives support from the National Union of Young Christians in Lebanon. It is funded by the Ministry of Health and supported by the World Health Organization and the European Union. It distributes in the country a list of up to 60 drugs to more than 200 primary care outpatients. This project has redoubled its efforts. Its members notice a worrying increase in the number of people who demand it.
“People are desperate and doctors don’t know what to do. It is a chaotic river in which we have to save lives at a dropper, ”says Assaf, while showing the facilities. “The worst thing is that there are drugs that are no longer available. In addition, we are not being cautious and we continue to have many problems with the pandemic, “he adds. Health workers are also on the run: more and more professionals are emigrating to other countries. They live with constant impotence – “we see a lot of physical and mental pain that we cannot alleviate”, they confess – but they do not lose hope, inspired by the Arab proverb that “every morning the sun rises and the birds sing”.
Abdel Latif with tired eyes, clumsy hands and bundled with several layers of clothing prepares for sleep. The next day he will continue to search for life with formulas to be able to buy his medicines. During the night the lamp will wear out and, for a few hours, even the shadows will disappear.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.