Analysis |

As Lebanon Plunges Deeper Into Chaos, You're Better Off a Zoo Animal Than a Person

Unaffordable medicine, violence in the streets and valueless food stamps are just the latest symptoms of the country's political and economic dysfunction

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Lebanese soldiers deploy in Beirut amid clashes, last week.
Lebanese soldiers deploy in Beirut amid clashes, last week.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"DNA-wise those are lions, but those are just two animals which have given up on life and are lying here …. At this point they are not really lions," Jason Mier, director of Animals Lebanon, told Reuters late last month. The charity is seeking new homes for these beasts – once a favorite at the zoo outside Beirut – and for other forlorn animals.

The lions are hungry all the time, and there’s nowhere to buy them food, Mier says. A lion eats about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of food a week, which costs about $6, but the zoo has no money to provide them even this.

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Over the past two years, Lebanon has found shelter for about 250 animals from five of its zoos, but the process is becoming increasingly complex and expensive, especially considering the plummeting Lebanese pound. The government realized that news reports about these animals were chilling for many Lebanese.

Last week, the week Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri resigned, the Lebanese took one of their hardest blows of recent times. This time it was the pharmaceutical industry, which will now be deprived of the subsidies that let medicine be bought at reasonable prices.

The government is letting local drugmakers receive subsidized dollars at 1,510 liras each, but only for 406 units of medicine. For the rest, especially imports, producers and importers will have to pay in dollars at a much higher rate – between 4,800 and 12,000 liras per dollar.

Pharmacists, physicians and regular people who were asked their opinion on the expected meteoric price rise said that people are already buying pills individually, with their best option a blister pack or one pack and a half, if they can afford it.

Hospitalized patients have to buy their medication themselves, the shelves are empty and pharmacists are asking their customers to buy medicine donated from other patients after they've recovered or died.

“The situation will only get worse,” the commander of the Lebanese army, Gen. Joseph Aoun, said last week, referring to the potential of violent disturbances that have already broken out in Tripoli and parts of Beirut.

Aoun, who visited Paris about two weeks ago on a campaign to collect charity for his soldiers, and who leads an army dependent on food contributions from Qatar, will also have to face off against thousands of protesters who have nothing to lose. And he’s not sure his soldiers won’t join the protests.

A Syrian brown bear being checked under anesthesia at a zoo in the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon, on Sunday.Credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

In about two weeks, Lebanon will mark one year since the devastating blast at the Beirut port. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and property, and about 200 families who lost loved ones are still waiting for the results of the investigation and the government compensation that was promised.

On the anniversary of the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron will host a conference of donor countries in Paris, expected to be online, with the goal of sending a few million dollars in assistance to the needy. In a similar conference held after the blast last year, Macron was able to raise $250 million. One wonders how much will be donated and by whom this year.

Last year, Lebanon still had an agreed-on government, which resigned about two months later and became an interim government, still headed by Hassan Diab. At the same time, President Michel Aoun asked Hariri to form a permanent cabinet, but he tried and failed to form a government of technocrats, whose makeup Aoun opposed.

The president turned down the latest proposal by Hariri last week. Twenty minutes after their conversation, Hariri announced his resignation. According to the Lebanese constitution, the president must consult with parliament to agree on a new prime minister, and Aoun is expected to begin this process Monday.

Even before this he asked two politicians, Najib Mikati and Faisal Karami, to have a go. Mikati declined and Karami, even if he agrees, will be considered a prime minister of “one side,” the side of President Aoun and his ally Hezbollah. This means that Karami will probably need massive support from the Sunni community and its elite.

It seems that except for the public, no one cares whether a government is established, especially not Hezbollah, which knows that forming a government will require reforms that could sting the group's income sources and even its political status, because without the reforms, Lebanon will not receive assistance.

Without a government and functioning government institutions, Lebanese will once again have to adopt the methods they used during the 1975-1990 civil war, when every ethnic community took care of those loyal to it. In southern Lebanon the Shi’ites rely on Amal and Hezbollah, while the Druze help their own.

And in the poor north, mainly in the Sunni city of Tripoli, people are helped by Sunni aid groups and receive some help from Turkey. These people can’t even depend on the food vouchers the government issues every month to needy families. These handouts are supposed to let about half a million families buy basic food products valued at about $90 a month for a year.

There’s just one small problem: The government doesn’t have the money to fund the vouchers. In Lebanon, the lions are hungry, but at least they have hope of being saved. The people, not so much.

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