Lebanon entered 2020 daring to dream of a reclaimed country. After demonstrations broke out in October 2019, there was hope for a countrywide uprising uniting hundreds of thousands of people sharing frustration and rage toward the shaky economy and corrupt ruling class. But that hope soon turned into despair.
Faced with the covid-19 pandemic, debilitating lockdowns amid a collapsing economy, and the horrific August explosion at the port in Beirut which left parts of the country’s capital in ruins and hundreds dead, Lebanon is in free fall; its own president said it could be on the road to hell.
It’s a ghastly dystopia — even its billboards during the holiday season show it.
On a highway just north of Beirut, a harrowing billboard ad for a household oxygen concentrator machine reads: “Afraid of Covid-19? Hospitals are full!” In Beirut, a new billboard ad was set up near the seaside promenade for a small household cash-counting machine. The local currency lost roughly 80 percent of its value this year, with the black market determining its daily rate.
It was never in doubt that Lebanon’s political and economic system was risky and shaky: It is a semi-democratic, sectarian power-sharing system, coupled with a laissez-faire economic system with virtually no productive sectors and no viable state-funded social services. Corruption and malicious financial practices are endemic. But the country somehow continued to survive through last-minute measures, from wizardry from the notorious Central Bank, to last-gasp agreements between the country’s rotten ruling parties to restore a semblance of stability.
It is a country that has been on life-support for far too long. This year tore the bandages off that festering wound, finally exposing it in its true form.
In a column in February, I wrote about meeting an elderly woman named Alice, who had to sell her own furniture and rummage through dumpsters to pay her rent. Unfortunately, stories such as hers are no longer unusual. As the currency crumbled, unemployment, homelessness and food prices skyrocketed. Armed robberies at pharmacies became far more common; in one case, a man wanted diapers.
The coronavirus pandemic hit Lebanon hard. It further crippled businesses and livelihoods, and no viable economic system from the cash-strapped state materialized. Underfunded public hospitals were not well-equipped, and the country’s top private hospitals were hesitant to receive many covid-19 patients, if any. The strategy was to do just enough to hold on — an approach very familiar to most Lebanese after years of seeing it in government.
And then came the port blast on Aug. 4 that left at least 200 dead and thousands wounded. It was supposedly one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history — and one of the most avoidable. More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were left unattended at a port warehouse for more than half a decade. It appears that high-ranking political officials, security agencies and the judiciary were aware of this ticking time bomb. But, much like the country’s unsustainable financial and economic system, it was an issue they chose to keep postponing.
The night of the explosion, I remember walking across some of the impact areas and seeing the devastation: People frenzied as they searched for missing loved ones or tried to help them into ambulances. If it weren’t for covid-19 forcing many to stay indoors, there would have been far more people killed.
Since then, whatever morale was left for the people of Lebanon vanished. A few days after the blast, I saw a father try to wrestle his way past a group of doctors to see his dying son at a hospital’s intensive care unit. I’ll never forget how 28-year-old Mehieddine Lazkani described how he watched his own father die, and the unrecognizable condition that he saw him in. The families of the victims are hoping for justice through investigation, but most told me they aren’t holding their breath.
Despite it all, a spirit of charity and solidarity has emerged. In the absence of any functioning state institutions, volunteers swept to support families impacted by the blast. During the covid-19 lockdown, many people covered expenses for food and other needs for families affected by job cuts and soaring prices. It is an inspiring response to a damning situation, but it is not a solution.
Whether Lebanon is beyond repair is beside the question; I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it just yet. This is what happens when a select elite has a say over financial resources for decades, with no viable checks and balances whatsoever. It is unsurprising that there is no sign of a deeper change in the system.
Lebanon’s catastrophic year should be a lesson for governments everywhere that ignoring your problems rather than solving them will come back to haunt you. Issues that are left to worsen often end up blowing up — sometimes literally. Will Lebanon’s ruling class ever learn?
Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist at the Public Source and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, based in Beirut.