With a health system close to collapse, Caritas Lebanon tries to find medicines
by Dario Salvi

WHO director general is in Lebanon today and tomorrow to vet the country’s “unprecedented complex crisis”. In August, dozens of cancer patients protested in front of the UN offices. For Caritas director Fr Abboud, the basic problem is “corruption” in a nation “plundered” by politicians. Yet, hope lives on, as does solidarity.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – In Lebanon “there are no medicines” and many “knock on the doors of Caritas” in search of help, especially for life-saving drugs, said Fr Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon.

“We do what we can,” he told AsiaNews, trying to find them through various channels, including foreign ones, “but it is a difficult undertaking” because “they cost a lot”.

Lebanon’s health system has reached “catastrophic” levels. Through mainstream and social media, Fr Michel is appealing “for aid”.

Some patients on ventilators “died because power outages shut down the machines. People have told us some sad stories about relatives, stories that have remained private.”

Drug shortages have become chronic in Lebanon, leading to preventable deaths. The problem has been compounded by the collapse of the country’s hospitals.

“Many drugs do not arrive and if they do, they are not stocked or they cost an arm and a leg,” Fr Michel explained.

"Many chronically ill people turn to Caritas for medications against hypertension or diabetes. We have no anti-cancer drugs so cancer patients are dying waiting for treatment. There are also no basic vaccines for children.”

Some people travel to Turkey, but there the drugs are often too expensive, crushing all hope.

“We see more and more people coming to Lebanon from abroad, landing at airports with suitcases full of medicines for relatives and friends.

“We do not yet know the extent of this, how many Lebanese have died from lack of treatment, but, we ourselves have tried to assess it by looking at changes in the mortality rate. Meanwhile, we try to do what we can, providing solar panels or batteries to power ventilators.”

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean Ahmed Al Mandhari are on an official two-day visit to the country today and tomorrow.

Their agenda includes meetings with high level officials and a stop at the renovated Central Drug Warehouse, which was destroyed by the explosion at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020.

In a statement, the UN health agency said that Lebanon is experiencing an “unprecedented complex crisis, that has serious repercussions on the health system” and on the health of “an already vulnerable population.”

For the Mideast nation, this is one of its worst economic crises in 150 years, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement by political leaders who have piled on the country debts and debts and done very little or nothing to support the local economy. 

The nation is largely dependent on imports, which are now unsustainable after the local currency lost 90 per cent of its value since 2019 leaving the central bank's reserves dry.

In August, dozens of cancer patients held a rally in front of the UN offices in Beirut, calling for international aid. 

“Everything is linked to corruption because Lebanon is not a poor country,” Fr Michel explained. Instead, “the country’s rulers have plundered and impoverished it. COVID-19 and the port explosion are great tragedies, but the primary causes are to be found elsewhere.”

The new government announced last week "is a source of hope", but it must be judged on its actions, not words. Hopefully, it might “change something” or at least “stop” the descent into the abyss.

For its part, Caritas has launched several initiatives, including acquiring medicines and providing treatment for the needy. 

“We are going to villages with Egyptian doctors offering free cataract operations, over a hundred in a short period of time,” the Caritas director said, “but there are thousands who want one. Some people have been waiting two years for an operation.”

In a final plea, Fr Michel noted: “We must hold on and be united, maintain hope so that one day this crisis can be put behind us.”