Doctors fear ‘surge in deaths’ after Lebanon lifts drug subsidies

Beirut, Lebanon – Over the previous six months, Beirut’s Rafik Hariri University Hospital has struggled with energy cuts, medication shortages and a tidal wave of medical employees emigrating for higher job alternatives.

But now, with medication subsidies additionally partially lifted, docs on the government-run facility within the Lebanese capital fear the worst.

“We can expect a surge in deaths,” Dr Mahmoud Hassoun, the hospital’s chief medical officer, informed Al Jazeera.

“How can you treat a patient, when there is expensive medicine that you cannot provide?”

Health Minister Firas Abiad earlier this month introduced the partial lifting of subsidies, together with on some medicine for persistent sicknesses. The move led to costs for these medicines skyrocketing, exacerbating a medical disaster that has crippled Lebanon’s fragile healthcare system.

The value of 1 hypertension treatment has elevated ninefold. Other medicine, resembling these prescribed for psychological well being situations like despair and schizophrenia, at the moment are costing thrice as a lot, in keeping with the Lebanese nonprofit Embrace.

Hassoun stated the hospital should proceed counting on NGOs’ assist for provides and prioritise some sufferers over others.

Legislator Bilal Abdullah, who can also be a member of the parliament’s well being committee, informed Al Jazeera the Central Bank “used to provide about $120m on medical subsidies” month-to-month. “Now it can only allocate $35m.”

Lebanon is already going by way of a damning financial disaster that has slipped roughly three-quarters of the inhabitants into poverty. The Lebanese pound, in simply over two years, has misplaced about 90 % of its worth towards the United States greenback, whereas ongoing political paralysis has stalled any hopes of financial restoration within the near future.

The nation’s healthcare sector has been notably hit. Hospitals already fighting shortages of medical provides and employees – Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the epicentre of Lebanon’s COVID-19 response, has been functioning with solely about half of its capability – are additionally unable to safe sufficient gas to maintain lights on and machines working. Meanwhile, the authorities have didn’t cease suppliers from hoarding stockpiles of drugs, in addition to to curb their smuggling and commerce on the black market at extraordinary charges.

“Our pharmacies are already empty without medicine,” pharmacist Joe Salloum informed Al Jazeera. “Pharmacists don’t have the capital to buy medicines any more, and citizens have less access.”

Pharmacy staff serve clients in Beirut, Lebanon, November 17, 2021 [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

In May, the Central Bank refused to dip into overseas forex reserves to cowl medication subsidies. Two months later, because the reserves dwindled, the crisis-hit nation partially lifted subsidies on merchandise resembling nutritional vitamins and painkillers costing 12,000 Lebanese kilos or much less, alongside costly blanket subsidies on wheat and gas.

In an interview on Thursday, Abiad, the well being minister, described this month’s move affecting medicines for persistent sicknesses as a “necessary step” and sought to alleviate fears that medication subsidies might be totally lifted.

Abiad stated folks “have a right to express their pain” and stated he needed to spice up native manufacturing for some 500 medicines for persistent illnesses.

‘Bad policy but a lifeline’

Experts have stated Lebanon’s total subsidy programme, together with for medicines, has been disproportionately benefitting the rich over the poor. Several research present that as a result of the scheme will not be concentrating on essentially the most susceptible however is utilized throughout the board, folks with increased incomes profit extra due to their increased spending energy. One research by the International Labour Organization reveals that lower than half of the individuals who profit from subsidies are among the many poorest 80 %.

Leila Dagher, affiliate professor of economics on the American University of Beirut, stated Lebanon has squandered billions of {dollars} to keep up the programme.

“It was a bad policy right from the start,” Dagher, who can also be a senior fellow for The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, informed Al Jazeera. “However, we had warned over and over again that given the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, Lebanese households will be severely impacted by the lifting of the subsidies and hence should be compensated by a cash assistance programme.”

The authorities has lengthy promised to implement a ration-card programme to offer help to some susceptible 500,000 households and soften the blow from the lifting of subsidies. But it has not managed to safe funding from the worldwide group amid the continuing political turmoil and the Central Bank’s refusal to make use of its reserves to assist fund the $556m programme.

“There is still no clear timeline as to when the long-awaited ‘ration card’ will be launched and I have not heard a single valid justification for that,” Dagher stated.

“Togo, similarly to Lebanon, does not have a comprehensive social registry yet they were able to roll out an emergency cash assistance program to over half a million individuals in less than four weeks.”

Meanwhile, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations particular rapporteur on excessive poverty and human rights who not too long ago met Lebanese officers and struggling households, stated the authorities have been conscious of the detrimental penalties however informed him that lifting subsidies was “inevitable”.

“You cannot lift subsidies – whether on bread or wheat or medicine – without strengthening the purchasing power of people in poverty by raising the minimum wage and improving social protection, which is extremely thin today,” De Schutter informed Al Jazeera.

“I think we should be really attentive to the sequencing.”