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Lebanon's Catastrophe: Political Paralysis and a Vaccine Mafia

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A demonstrator holding a picture last week of one of those killed in last year's blast at the Beirut port.
A demonstrator holding a picture last week of one of those killed in last year's blast at the Beirut port.Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In an end-of-days vision, one could imagine thousands of Israelis flocking to the Lebanese city of Bsharri, standing in line for the ski slopes, merrily schussing down the long trails and whiling away time in the crowded bars. And the prices? They leave Israel’s Mount Hermon slopes in the dust, to say nothing of ski resorts in France, Italy and Switzerland.

A ski pass for an entire day costs $34 on weekdays and $84 on weekends. For beginners, the price drops to $27 a day, and for children, it’s just $17.

Bsharri has Lebanon’s oldest ski resort, and the country’s first ski lift was installed there in 1953. The town is also the birthplace of Lebanon’s most famous author and poet, Kahlil Gibran. History and fun for the price of a single ticket.

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Israelis might also drive an hour from Beirut to the Mzaar Kfardebian ski area, which is Lebanon’s largest. It has 50 trails coursing across more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) over an area of more than 32,000 dunams (8,000 acres).

The closed Mzaar Kfardebian ski area in January.Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

So much for the vision. In Lebanon’s grim reality, even the tens of thousands of Lebanese ski enthusiasts have nowhere to ski.

Snow has already fallen and has covered the mountains. The maintenance workers and safety inspectors have finished their work, but the coronavirus has shuttered this important tourist industry. Thousands of people who looks to the ski season to supplement their incomes, or who earn their entire living in an industry in which five months of activity can sustain them for an entire year, are sitting at home with no idea of how they will support themselves.

The crisis in the ski industry is in addition to the collapse of the hotels, which were almost entirely empty on Christmas and New Year’s, as well as the woes experienced by restaurants and cafes in major cities, which were shut down and aren’t getting any compensation from the government.

This week, the government began partially reopening businesses. It hopes that towards the beginning of March, it will be able to move on to the next stage of the reopening, following a full lockdown that had lasted for about two months.

In addition, the first coronavirus vaccine arrived this month, but in tiny quantities – around 31,000 doses. Over the next five weeks, that number is slated to climb to 250,000. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a population of six million, and vaccinating the entire population is expected to take around eight months – provided that the money is found to pay for the vaccine.

The vaccination campaign has already turned into a circus. The government didn’t prepare a prioritization plan or set clear criteria as to who should receive the shots. As a result, hospitals and clinics are setting the rules themselves. People with connections are first in line. Paying under the table also helps.

In addition, importers are stockpiling the vaccine in their warehouses, demanding that the government pay in cash – and only in dollars – to have it released.

The Lebanese media has reported about collaboration between the hospitals and what they term the “vaccine mafia,” in other words the vaccine importers, in setting prices and determining the method of payment. The government is incapable of overseeing the process or deciding how the vaccine should be distributed.

Some people are already demanding that the government shift the task of importing and distributing the vaccine to the army, to put a stop to the rampant anarchy of their distribution. Others are demanding that the process be opened to anyone wishing to import vaccine, or medicine in general, rather than entrusting the task to a few importers who control the market. Still others propose that the government stop subsidizing medicine, other than what is used to treat chronic illnesses, to prevent a situation in which government-subsidized medicine is sold at full price on the open market.

Medical personnel at a hospital in Beirut last week waiting to receive coronavirus vaccinations.Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

It’s unlikely that any of these proposals will be accepted, because the government benefits from the prevailing setup. Some ministers and members of parliament are partners in the importing companies. Others are bribed to maintain the status quo.

The judge who went too far

The Lebanese government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is no surprise. It’s typical of its handling of all of the country’s crises.

A little over six months ago, it should be recalled, a massive explosion at the port of Beirut killed more than 200 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Around 20,000 homes and thousands of offices were destroyed or seriously damaged.

As usual, the government was quick to promise that the explosion would be thoroughly investigated and that those responsible would stand trial and be punished. It also promised to compensate the families of the dead and injured and fund the reconstruction of the buildings.

But very little of this has actually happened. The rebuilding is awaiting international aid, which isn’t coming. Lebanese insurance companies are refusing to reimburse policyholders who sustained losses from the blast, claiming that the results of the investigation are necessary to determine the extent to which they have to pay out claims. And the investigation has been dragging on for months.

Granted, an investigative judge was put in charge of the probe. The judge, Fadi Sawan, even appeared to be intent on conducting a serious investigation. But his efforts were soon stymied. He ordered the arrest of 25 people and questioned dozens of others. But then, he decided to question three cabinet ministers as well as the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab. That was a step too far for the political elite.

Personnel this week at the site of last year's Beirut port blast.Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Diab announced that he wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation and received backing for his stance from fellow politicians, including Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. The Supreme Judicial Council – which appoints all judges, including investigative judges – announced that Sawan had exceeded his authority. He was fired and replaced by another investigative judge.

So if the Lebanese were initially highly skeptical of the investigation’s credibility, now they have proof that the country’s political leadership, which bears ultimate responsibility for the situation at the port, will emerge from the probe unscathed.

As for reimbursement for the damage, which is estimated at $15 billion, they can only dream of compensation. The government’s coffers are empty. Even the $100 million advance it was to give to the failing electric company – which for years has contributed significantly to the country’s enormous budget deficits – hasn’t been approved, because there is no approved budget. And without such an advance payment, the company can’t buy the fuel it needs to produce power.

Political impasse

And the budget can’t be approved until a new government is in place. But for Hariri to be able to form a government, he needs to reach an agreement with President Michel Aoun regarding its composition, including how many ministers it will have and who they will be.

Their disagreement only deepened when Aoun demanded that the number of ministers be increased from 18 to 20. Hariri refused, because he rightly feared that the addition of two ministers was meant to give Aoun full control over the cabinet’s decisions, enabling him to head off the vital economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund, from which Lebanon is seeking a $10 billion loan.

Hariri is also hoping to get aid from the Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which he visited last week. He was received with appropriate respect, but he still hasn’t secured a deal, or even a promise of one.

In a ridiculous turn, Lebanese economists and academics have now begun arguing over whether the country should be considered to be suffering from hyperinflation or merely high inflation. Each side presents its own statistics to prove its point.

It’s like passengers on the Titanic arguing over the quality of the music in the upper lounge when the ship had already hit the iceberg.

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