The recent economic crisis in Lebanon has led to a massive shortage of medical supplies and hospital capacity, worsening an already strained healthcare system. The COVID-19 pandemic is further intensifying the nation’s economic crash and incidents of supply shortages. However, relief programs are stepping in to help improve health conditions in Lebanon.

Causes and Contributing Economic Factors

Lebanon has held substantial debt since the country began accepting aid to recover from its 1975 civil war. On top of this, Syria and the surrounding region experienced turmoil in 2014 that significantly reduced the value of the Lebanese pound relative to the U.S. dollar. This process has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and the decreasing amount of money being sent in payment from the Lebanese diaspora. The country has now racked up debt equal to 170% of its gross domestic product.

As COVID-19 challenges the global economy, the situation is rapidly intensifying. The value of currency in Lebanon has decreased by 78% since October 2019. The main issue facing healthcare in Lebanon results from the country’s lack of U.S. dollars. Depositors are withdrawing their money from Lebanese banks due to fears of further inflation, bank restrictions on withdrawals to curb the crisis and decreased foreign investments as a result of Lebanon’s perceived instability. Since Lebanon imports four-fifths of its consumer goods and depends on U.S. dollars to facilitate these transactions, the country is now facing shortages in all sectors of the economy, including healthcare.

The Current Hospital Crisis and COVID-19

The Lebanese government cannot pay both private and public hospitals using funds like the National Social Security Fund due to its present debt and currency inflation. This financial setback jeopardizes hospitals’ capacities to provide essential surgeries or import medical supplies. Private hospitals make up 82% of all healthcare in Lebanon. The national government only paid private hospitals 40% of what they were meant to receive in 2019, and has yet to fulfill any of its regular payments this year.

Public hospitals have also received a fraction of their regular government aid in recent years. This lack of funding limits hospitals not only from purchasing critical supplies, but also from paying employees. Hospitals are being forced to delay salary payments and even to consider cutting salaries in half. Lebanese hospitals import 100% of their medical equipment and rely on U.S. dollars for these shipments, so the absence of U.S. dollars has created a supply shortage. Since September, the country has imported less than 10% of the supplies it needs.

The recent rise of COVID-19 has not only left hospitals unprepared to meet increased patient demand, but also places immense strain on healthcare in Lebanon as a whole. Hospitals lack appropriate protective gear like masks and gloves, ventilators and spare parts. Furthermore, without the money to pay their employees full salaries or hire new workers, hospitals are finding themselves understaffed amidst the surge of demand precipitated by the pandemic.

Solutions and Relief

Many organizations like the United Nations (UN) have offered aid to help improve healthcare in Lebanon. The Central Bank has also intervened, guaranteeing half of the money withdrawn for imports will be exchanged at the official rate, rather than the inflated rate, in an effort to help hospitals purchase supplies. In March, the World Bank also gave Lebanon a 39 million dollar loan to prepare public hospitals for COVID-19.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN have committed to help Lebanon obtain medical supplies during the pandemic. The Chinese government also shipped medical supplies to Lebanon and pledged to continue providing relief.

Nonprofit groups are working on the ground to address the needs of healthcare workers in Lebanon. Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization that addresses poverty worldwide, delivered a shipment of N-95 masks, face shields, gloves and other supplies in May. Direct Relief will continue to cooperate with local organizations to provide essential resources during the pandemic.

The economic crisis in Lebanon has led to a strained healthcare system. COVID-19 has served to exacerbate the already difficult situation. However, acts of global partnership and aid show promise for eventually strengthening the system of healthcare in Lebanon.

Emily Rahhal
Photo: Flickr