‘Our people are preying on each other’: Baby formula and nappies vanish in crisis hit Lebanon

Fumbled government policy has led to a wave of panic buying and price gouging

An ambulant vendor pulls his handcart in the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli, north of Beirut, on January 26, 2021. Lebanon has imposed a round-the-clock curfew nationwide since January 14, barred non-essential workers from leaving their homes and restricted grocery shopping to deliveries. On paper, its Covid-19 restrictions are among the strictest in the world, but in reality grinding poverty is pushing many back onto the streets to eke out a living. / AFP / JOSEPH EID
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A peculiar, brightly coloured warehouse on the outskirts of Beirut has become the centre of a growing political storm, as shortages of everyday items grip Lebanon.

I can't live in a country where I have to beg for formula and diapers for my child

On Friday, the Ministry of Economy raided the site and discovered 200,000 cans of baby formula stashed away by HOLDAL – Abou Adal Group, a local distributor in the capital.

The revelation has caused public outrage

As Lebanon’s economic crisis continues, baby essentials like formula and diapers are almost impossible to find on pharmacy shelves. Some families are finding themselves making dozens of shopping trips in vain attempts to find these essentials.

Price hikes amid the shortages have also triggered profiteering, stockpiling and panic buying.  A nightmare familiar for citizens of countries with troubled economies, such as Venezuela, is increasingly becoming common in Lebanon.

Baby formula for children aged 2 and under has soared in price to about 40,000 Lebanese pounds, or almost $30. For the poorest Lebanese workers, that's more than a week's income. For diapers, the situation is even worse, with packs sometimes selling for an eye watering $50 or more.

Just last week, an Arabic hashtag that translates into “baby formula is out of stock” went viral on social media, demanding action from authorities: why were products that should be readily available now nowhere to be found?

Shortages have hit multiple brands of infant products across Lebanon, pushing many to breaking point.

The company accused of stockpiling denied allegations of withholding product, saying “items are still being delivered to pharmacies in an uninterrupted manner.”

“We don’t know who to believe any more,” some parents said.

Mounting despair

“I’m leaving Lebanon because of this,” said Elissar Osman, who has two children aged 1 and three months.

“I can’t live in a country where I have to beg for formula and diapers for my child.”

Ms Osman’s husband had taken on an overseas job with a lower wage just so they could move away. Daily treks to more than 20 pharmacies for formula to feed their son had drained the last of their patience.

epa08964958 Anti-government protestors block some roads in downtown Beirut, Lebanon 25 January 2021. People are protesting against the recent coronavirus restrictions and terrible living conditions.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

The shortage of baby formula in Lebanon is a substantial crisis because relying on alternatives is not always easy.

Dr Hana Fayyad, a specialised paediatrician, said baby formula was important for growth and bolstering the immune system.

Attention to ingredients and benefits for infants at different stages can make all the difference for babies with health concerns.

"Sudden shifts in baby formula are not recommended," Dr Fayyad told The National. "When a baby adapts to something and you give them something else, they might not accept it. It could trigger discomfort, severe allergy, or other issues."

Roger Didier Boueri, 2, was admitted to hospital twice after drinking brands of formula that aggravated his acid reflux. After finally finding a formula brand that suited him, his parents were faced with the challenge of locating it in pharmacies.

“If I substitute my son’s formula and he gets sick, what hospital would take him in during this pandemic?” said Nadine Boueri.

According to Ghassan Al Amine, head of the Order of Pharmacists in Lebanon, the crisis is the result of a domino effect starting with Lebanon’s Central Bank, which announced that subsidies would be lifted on essential items, once foreign reserves are drained.

The decision created widespread panic in the country, pushing citizens to buy in bulk in fear of extortionate prices. Importers on the other hand, fuelled that fear by hoarding products and awaiting the subsidy programme to come to an end, to sell their provisions at the market rate.

"When importers give less to pharmacies, pharmacies give less to people," Mr Al Amine told The National.

A pharmacist in Beirut said companies have limited the quantities distributed to them to up to 12 cans of each formula type available per month, which he believed was “a ridiculous quota compared to the usual consumption rate.”

While baby formula was previously found in both supermarkets and pharmacies, it is now limited to the latter, which adds a “huge burden” on pharmacists. Some have resorted to keeping cans of formula off their shelves to avoid mass buying and to ensure equality among customers.

“It’s a difficult situation for us. We want to make sure that everyone has enough formula for their kids,” Mr Al Amine said.

Food & Drug Corporation, importers and distributors of consumer goods in Lebanon, said it was trying to fairly distribute baby formula to all pharmacies, as well as medication storage units.

"We cover between 2,850 and 2,900 pharmacies directly and equally in Lebanon," their senior channel sales manager Samir Sadek told The National.

But a large reason behind the shortage, according to Mr Sadek, is the huge demand from the people and the lack of dollar bills to import enough formula to cover this demand.

“People are stocking up more formula than they need. I know someone who has a six-month-old child but has already bought him formula to last him until he’s three years old.”

This type of formula hoarding by fiercely protective families has denied others even a single can of formula.

“Our people are preying on each other,” said father of two, Bilal Issa. “Every three days I have to search every pharmacy in Beirut for formula, while someone else has more than they need at home.”