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People walk in front of the shuttered door of a pharmacy in Beirut during a nationwide strike of pharmacies to protest against a severe shortage of medicine, on July 9, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

BEIRUT: Pharmacies went on strike over medicine shortages and two major power stations ground to a halt for lack of fuel on Friday in crisis-hit Lebanon, in the latest sign of economic collapse.

Politicians have for 11 months failed to form a government in Beirut that would instigate desperately needed economic reforms, and the local currency has plunged to a record low against the dollar on the black market.

Lebanon’s foreign currency reserves are fast depleting and the cash-strapped state is struggling to afford subsidies on key imports including medicines and fuel, sparking fears of renewed social unrest.

Importers say hundreds of medicines are now out of stock, as the central bank owes suppliers abroad millions of dollars and they can no longer open new lines of credit.

The association of pharmacy owners announced a “general open-ended strike across Lebanon” from Friday morning.

Ali Safa, a member of the association, said 80 per cent of pharmacies stayed closed in Beirut and other big cities, and around half had done so in other areas.

An AFP photographer said most chemists had closed along the densely populated coastline north of Beirut, while another said many also remained shut in the capital’s southern suburbs.

Poverty rising

The financial crisis has caused poverty levels to rise and affect more than half the population, with state power cuts of up to 22 hours a day across the country.

On Friday, the state electricity company said the Zahrani and Deir Ammar power stations had gone offline as they were unable to access fuel shipments stuck off the coast because of pending payments.

Water facilities in the north and south warned that they were reducing distribution to the minimum because of power cuts and low fuel levels.

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People attend the Baalbek Festival held under the theme “defying darkness with music”, in eastern Bekaa Valley, on July 9, 2021. Image Credit: AFP
Baalbek Festival goes virtual
Lebanon's annual Baalbek Festival was held on Friday in virtual form with the famed Roman ruins a part of its backdrop, as an expression of hope in the crisis-hit country.
The programme of 10 performances, a mixture of jazz, Indie rock, rap, hip rock and electro pop, filmed last month at Roman sites across the Bekaa Valley of east Lebanon, including Baalbek itself, was broadcast on Lebanese television and streamed on the internet.
"We are in an economic and health crisis, and we wanted to give young Lebanese artists who continue to produce and show creativity a platform for their art," said the festival's president, Nayla de Freige.
"Another message is to offer a moment of happiness and to dream... to show another face of Lebanon, to transform the pain into hope," she told AFP.
Festival organisers chose the slogan "shine on Lebanon, defying darkness with music" for its 2021 edition.

The local currency, the Lebanese pound, was selling for a record 19,500 pounds to the greenback on the black market, less than a tenth of its official rate.

As Lebanon faces what the World Bank says is probably one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 1850s, even painkillers and infant milk formula are difficult to find at the chemist.

The Lebanese have for months been harnessing social media to ask for help, including from friends and family abroad.

Beirut resident Elie, 48, said he had visited five pharmacies earlier in the week in the search for drugs to treat high uric acid.

“They kept telling me there was none left, or that the suppliers had not delivered” the medicine, he told AFP.

Street protests

Pharmacy owner Safa said that over the past two months suppliers had gradually stopped making deliveries.

He called for the health ministry to approve a list of priority medicines which it would continue to subsidise.

Suppliers could then sell all the other drugs according to the black market rate, he said, in order not to make a loss.

The central bank said Monday it would earmark $400 million to support key products including medicine and flour.

The head of the medicine importers’ syndicate said the bank had promised it $50 million a month in subsidies for medicine - just half of importers’ current bills for that period.

Lebanon’s government resigned in August last year after a devastating explosion at Beirut port killed more than 200 people, but it has stayed on in a caretaker capacity throughout the political deadlock.

Lebanese from all religious and social backgrounds staged mass street protests in autumn 2019 against a political class they accuse of being both incompetent and corrupt.

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A man who lost his son during last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s seaport shouts slogans as he pushed back by a Lebanese soldier after he tries with others to reach the tightly-secured residence of Berri, in Beirut. Image Credit: AP

Meanwhile, families of the victims of the blast protested in the capital on Friday to pressure parliament to lift immunity on three legislators as requested by the judge leading the investigation into the explosion.

One of the protests took place near the residency of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, where the legislature’s justice committee was meeting over the immunity request. Lebanese troops pushed the protesters back from the tightly-secured building. Many Lebanese blame the country’s ruling elites for negligence that led to the port explosion.

“You blew up Beirut and put people in coffins,” read a banner carried by one of the protesters.