BEIRUT — Ibrahim Arab waits in line several hours a day in the hot summer sun to buy gas for his taxi.
When he’s not working, the 37-year-old father of two drives from one Beirut pharmacy to another, looking for baby formula for his 7-month-old son — any he can find — even though the infant got severe diarrhea and vomiting from an unfamiliar brand.
He worries what would happen if his children got really sick. Once among the best in the region, Lebanon’s hospitals are struggling amid the country’s economic and financial crisis that has led to daily power outages that last for hours, shortages of diesel fuel for backup generators, and a lack of medical equipment and drugs.
After 20 months of suffering with no end in sight, a new reality is setting in for most of Lebanon’s 5 million people: Days filled with severe shortages — from spare parts for cars to medicine, fuel and other basic goods in the import-dependent country.
“My life was already difficult, and now the gasoline crisis only made things worse,” Arab said on a recent day. To survive, he works a second job at a Beirut grocery store, but his monthly income in Lebanese pounds has lost 95% of its purchase power.
The crisis, which began in late 2019, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by a post-civil war political class that has accumulated debt and done little to encourage local industries, forcing the country to rely on imports for almost everything.
The Lebanese pound has nose-dived, banks have clamped down on withdrawals and transfers, and hyperinflation has flared.
The liquidity crunch is crippling the government’s ability to provide fuel, electricity and basic services. A shortage of dollars is gutting imports of medical supplies and energy.
The fuel shortage has especially raised fears that the country could become paralyzed. Even private generators, used by the Lebanese for decades, have to be switched off for hours to conserve diesel.
“We are really in hell,” tweeted Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, which leads the country’s coronavirus fight. Despite a heat wave, the hospital decided Monday to turn off the air conditioning, except in medical departments.
Electricity cuts have affected internet connections in various cities, while bakeries warn they might have to close due to fuel shortages.
The situation has become critical in recent weeks, with scuffles and shootings at gas pumps, including one in the northern city of Tripoli, where the son of one station’s owner was killed.
Many Lebanese decry their leaders’ inability or unwillingness to work together to resolve the crisis.
The country has been without a working government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned days after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, that killed 211 people and injured more than 6,000. The catastrophic blast was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored there for years.
Residents expect the economy to get even worse, so they look for ways to adapt and cope.
To avoid waiting for hours, some pay people to fill their car for them. Others take their laptops and work from inside their vehicles in the lines that stretch for blocks and are known as “the queues of humiliation.”
Many rely on relatives and friends abroad to send medicine and baby formula. Those who can afford it fly to nearby countries for a day or two to stock up for months.
A man who works in solar energy said business is booming, with people fed up with decades of government promises to fix Lebanon’s power grid.
Last week, Diab approved financing energy imports at a rate higher than the official exchange rate, effectively reducing fuel subsidies amid the worsening shortages. The move that took effect Tuesday is expected to start easing the crisis temporarily, although prices shot up 35%.
Some people have been hoarding fuel out of fear that prices will nearly double, and this has added to its scarcity. Such an increase in prices will put the cost of fuel out of reach of many in a country where more than half the population lives in poverty.
Others smuggle it to neighboring Syria, which has its own fuel crisis and where the price of gasoline is five times higher than in Lebanon. But that also adds to the shortage in Lebanon.
The crisis has led angry residents across the country to block roads in protest.
They seized several tanker trucks in northern Lebanon and distributed gasoline for free to passersby. Another group confiscated a truck carrying powdered milk and also distributed its contents.
“Our business has become a job of mass destruction,” said Ahed Makarem, 24, who works at a gas station in the coastal village of Damour, south of Beirut.
As he spoke, a line of hundreds of cars moved slowly along the highway. Dozens of workers activated the station’s 12 pumps to fill vehicles and scooters. Motorists were limited to 20 liters (about 5 1/4 gallons).
Makarem said his 13-hour shift starts at 6 a.m. and he hardly has time to eat or sit. Fistfights have broken out in recent weeks as some people try to cut in line, he said. adding that when the station closes at 7 p.m., police sometimes have to intervene to turn away angry customers who waited in vain.
Many fear things will only get worse in the coming months, with the central bank’s reserves dropping and no solution in sight. Lawmakers are working on a ration card system that would give about 500,000 poor families between $93 and $137 a month. If approved, it would lead to even smaller subsidies and skyrocketing prices.
Arab, the taxi driver, is bracing for when the temporary solutions fall away and the crisis worsens.
He recently had to fix the brakes on his car, and his engine needed a spare part. That cost him more than twice the minimum monthly wage in Lebanon.
“I wish I had the opportunity to leave. This country is unlivable,” Arab said.