Lebanon's health sector needs world's help, caretaker minister Abiad says

Abiad met regional players at the World Health Assembly to drum up support for the crisis-stricken country

Lebanon's Health Minister Firas Abiad. The country's hospitals are suffering extreme shortages of medical supplies. AP
Powered by automated translation

Lebanon’s Caretaker Minister of Public Health used an appearance at the World Health Assembly in Geneva last week to call for support for Lebanon's crumbling health sector, he said on Monday.

Firas Abiad attended the assembly to secure regional and international support, saying the international community must prioritise assistance to Lebanon. The country's hospitals are suffering extreme shortages of medical supplies amid the country’s continuing economic crisis.

"It is the duty of the international community to provide support to Lebanon and its health system," he said.

"Appreciation for the Lebanese people on the international level is something to be proud of, and it is not something new for Lebanon."

Meetings with regional allies held on the sidelines of the summit in the Swiss capital generated the most support for Lebanon, Mr Abiad said.

Lebanon has been mired in a far-reaching economic crisis since 2019 which, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, has hit the country's health services hard.

Since 2019, hospitals throughout the country have suffered from electricity shortages and power cuts due to a shortage in diesel to meet the increasing reliance on generators.

How Lebanon's economic crisis unfolded - in pictures

Speaking on Monday, Mr Abiad said he was expecting Qatari assistance in the form of diesel for government hospitals to arrive this week.

While Mr Abiad was in Geneva, doctors and hospital workers held a two-day strike throughout Lebanon, decrying the health sector’s dire condition.

But the strike garnered little in the way of reaction from any governing entities, members of the troubled country’s hospital unions told The National, despite two days of pressure.

Since 2019 the Lebanese pound has lost over 90 per cent of its value and inflation has soared.

Medicine, diesel, and electricity shortages continue to dominate Lebanon’s health sector — and all sectors — due to an inability to secure funds from the country’s deteriorating Central Bank.

Meanwhile, doctors and hospital staff, along with most of the general public, remain unable to gain access to the majority of their funds from commercial banks. This is due to the Central Bank’s harsh measures to stem the depletion of its reserves.

With hospitals unable to administer proper care to patients, doctors struggling to gain access to their salaries, and many patients unable to pay hospital bills, one hospital administrator called the situation “impossible”.

“The problems are piling up, getting worse,” said Etoile Matar, the economic affairs director at the Notre Dame Des Secours Hospital in Byblos. “It’s really hard.”

The hospital owners' syndicate on Saturday called on several ministers to intervene with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks to allow hospitals to secure funds to buy essential medical supplies and pay salaries.

In a statement, the syndicate said that commercial banks, at the behest of the Central Bank, were “essentially holding funds hostage".

“This suffocates hospitals and paralyses their work,” the statement said.

Hospitals have warned that their inability to secure funds could force them to shut down or charge patients in cash — which is not a solution, Ms Matar said.

"The problem is if we want to take cash from the patients — they are also limited in terms of how much they can withdraw."

With around 80 per cent of Lebanon's population now living under the poverty line, according to the United Nations, Matar said, "their ability to pay is limited".

Several days since the hospital strike, there has been no response from any governing authority, Ms Matar said.

“It used to be that we would go on strike and our voices would be heard. We would get some sort of solution out of it,” she said. “But now, no matter how much you shout — it’s like shouting into a void. There is no response.”

Updated: May 30, 2022, 5:07 PM