Lebanon’s crisis hits healthcare

As Lebanon’s social and political crisis persists, health care is becoming increasingly inaccessible for most people. Many medicines remain unavailable and public health facilities face a surge of patients while trying to cope with power reductions

September 09, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
People’s protest against shortages of cancer drugs in Lebanon, end of August 2021. Photo: UN Lebanon Twitter

Lebanon’s ongoing social and political crisis is taking a toll on the country’s healthcare system, warned Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) recently. The current experience of NGOs providing healthcare is that patients are seeking care in health facilities burdened by power outages and drug shortages, and there is little hope for the situation to improve in the short term. 

“Hospitals are already having to ration their services and prioritize patients,” says João Martins, MSF head of mission in Lebanon. “People could now die from totally avoidable and otherwise easily treatable causes, just because hospitals don’t have electricity, the right supplies, or staff. “

Reduced access to basic necessities

Virginie Lefèvre from Amel International, an association that provides health care through 24 health centers in different parts of Lebanon, says that the health sector’s situation has worsened over the past months, particularly in the past three weeks. 

At the moment, most people do not have access to the most basic necessities: food items cost as much as ten times more than they did two years ago, and shortages of fuel and medicines are having a particularly negative impact on access to health. “Today, it is almost impossible to access medicines on the local market if you are an individual or an NGO that provides health care. Some public health facilities have limited contingency stocks of certain types of drugs that can keep them going for a couple of months, but that is far from enough to address everyone’s needs,” says Lefèvre.

Fuel shortage is also increasing financial barriers to health care. Transport expenses for those having to travel to reach a health facility have soared over the past weeks. This is true not only for patients but for health workers too. But stagnating salaries and getting paid in the national currency Lira — which continues to devalue — mean that some cannot afford to get to work every day.

Increasing needs, decreasing capacities

Meanwhile, the pressure on public and NGO-operated health facilities is increasing as fewer and fewer people can afford private care. This is particularly significant as a large chunk of Lebanon’s health system is privately operated.

Since the public sector has been neglected for so many years, its capacities are now not enough to absorb all the people who are coming in. Organizations like Amel and MSF are doing what they can to provide short-term relief, explains Lefèvre, still, they feel strongly that this should not be mistaken for a lasting strategy for ensuring the right to health.

Still, the political deadlock which Lebanon finds itself in is making it hard to imagine, let alone achieve, more long-term solutions. There have been attempts at the international level to provide financial aid, most recently through a donor conference co-chaired by France and the UN in early August – but these mostly miss the mark.

To begin with, the funds that the donors allocated for the health system have already been spent. To address the problem, the WHO and health NGOs sent a joint letter to the donors calling for more funds for health care. But even if the additional money comes through, this will not be the end of the problem.

“The public health system in Lebanon needs more funding, of course, that’s true, but money is not all it needs. To see concrete improvement, we need systemic solutions at the country level, decisions to make public health care a priority, and an overall situation which makes this possible,” points out Lefèvre.