A doctor in Lebanon describes the crisis he's witnessing. The new health minister responds

Lebanon’s economic crisis is reaching its worst point yet, with hospitals now unable to provide care for their patients. SBS News speaks to a doctor about his new reality and asks a member of the recently appointed government how it plans to stem the bleeding.

Dr Hady Ghanem

Dr Hady Ghanem has had to shut his oncology ward for part of the week due to crippling electricity cuts. Source: Rihab Charida

Usually, the oncology ward at Beirut’s LAU Medical Centre is filled with cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Today, it is all but empty, with just one lone inpatient too sick to go home, and too sick to speak, lying in her bed.

Manning the ward is Dr Hady Ghanem, LAU’s head of hematology-oncology. 

The government is now only providing electricity for one or two hours per day, he explains, and with fuel shortages crippling the country, the hospital cannot power its backup generators. 

"The generators have been on almost 22 or 23 hours per day, and that's a very big problem because of the fuel consumption. So at some point, we had to cut down on the services we were providing to patients," he says. 

"This unit used to have between 24 and 30 patients every day receiving chemotherapy, but today, it's shut down. We now have to shut it down two days out of five per week. So we have to cater for the same number of patients in a shorter period of time." 

But Dr Ghanem says keeping the power on is the least of Lebanon’s problems.

A cancer patient waits to receive chemotherapy at a Beirut hospital.
Source: AP

For the past two years, Lebanon has been in the midst of what the World Bank is describing as one of the world’s worst economic collapses since the mid-1800s.

Its currency has lost more than 90 per cent of its value, plunging three-quarters of the population into poverty. 

The most basic necessities of life, such as food and medicine, have become scarce, with the elite importing them from overseas, and everyone else largely going without. 

Dr Ghanem says even if they did have enough fuel to power the hospital’s generators, they still do not have the drugs his cancer patients need to battle their disease.

"These are very tricky situations that we're facing, because not only do we have to break bad news to the patients about their disease and their cancer, now we also have to tell them we don't have the medication they need," he says.

"Now we're faced with a situation where we have patients who have very bad disease and are very vulnerable because of cancer, and we're telling them to go try get their medication abroad because we cannot get them here in Lebanon."

Not only do we have to break bad news to the patients about their disease and their cancer, now we also have to tell them we don't have the medication they need.

- Hady Ghanem, Doctor

Lebanon was once referred to as ‘the hospital of the Middle East’ with people from around the region flocking there for treatment at its once internationally respected hospitals.

Now, medicine shortages have resulted in a surge of hospitalisations for treatable ailments like basic infections, diabetes and high blood pressure.

For Dr Ghanem, there is little doubt in his mind about how Lebanon reached this point. 

"My message to the government is to forget about all the division and all of the disparities and all of the conflicts that they have - we're really in disaster mode, we're facing a huge crisis when it comes to patients - and let them just think about having one of those patients as their family member," he says. 

"This is an urgent call to have those conflicts resolved. This is an urgent call to have medications brought to Lebanon because right now, even the big pharmaceutical companies are not able to ship their medications to Lebanon because of these approvals from the Central Bank or the Ministry of Health." 

Lebanon's new health minister responds

Lebanon’s government resigned after last year’s explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August. It killed 218 people, wounded another 6,500 and left some 300,000 displaced. 

The government has only just been replaced, after months of infighting between Lebanese factions over how power would be shared resulted in a 13-month long stalemate. 

Formed as the country’s economic collapse reaches its worst point yet, the new 24-member cabinet now faces a task like no other before it.

Lebanon's new health minister Firass Abiad.
Source: Supplied

Newly appointed health minister Dr Firass Abiad says its members are acutely aware of that.

"I think that the most important thing that the cabinet will do is restore some kind of confidence, not only from the local community but more importantly as well from the international community," he says.

"It will also have the opportunity to start very important negotiations with the IMF and others to bring in much-needed funds and much-needed support. All of this obviously will be directed towards alleviating some of the acute problems we're facing in different sectors."

The most important thing that the cabinet will do is restore some kind of confidence. 

- Firass Abiad, Health Minister

Before his appointment as health minister this month, Dr Abiad was working as a gastrointestinal surgeon and running Lebanon’s largest public hospital.

He was outspoken about the imminent collapse of the country’s health system during the worst of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic, tweeting screenshots of text messages from his distressed staff and raising the alarm about medicine shortages.

Now, it is his problem to fix.

"There has been a lot of donations in fuel to the hospitals by the international community, and that has helped some of those hospitals to stay open," he says.

"We're also trying to see whether we can focus subsidies on what is considered lifesaving medications, the cancer medications, and we're trying to organise a lot of the support that we were promised."

Lebanon’s new cabinet has been pitched as a government of technocrats; experts in their fields rather than career politicians. 

Dr Abiad has extensive experience running a hospital, the new justice minister is a judge, and the new economy minister is an economist. 

But every one of the new ministers has been hand-picked by the same political factions that have been ruling Lebanon for decades and led it to this crisis point.

Members of the new government at the Presidential Palace.
Source: Lebanese Official Government

"I think that the Lebanese people are very sceptical concerning any government, even a technocratic government, they will be sceptical because they've had so many disappointments in the past," Dr Abiad says.

"And I think that irrespective of what we say now, the Lebanese people will say the proof is in the pudding, and the onus is on us now to show why we are different and to put in the effort to give them the results they deserve."

"I think that the new government has to pull no punches. We need to put in all our effort, and if we work together, I think we have high hopes of success." 

But some political analysts are not as confident.

“Those ministers were appointed, literally, by the sectarian leaders and according to the sectarian power-sharing arrangement in the country,” says Bachar el-Halabi, a Lebanon analyst with consultancy firm ClipperData.

“This means that even if they might have the goodwill to enact or implement certain reforms, if those reforms even go against the interests of the regime, then they will fail simply as the previous government failed.”

Billions of dollars in aid has been promised to Lebanon by the International Monetary Fund as well as foreign donors since the beginning of the economic crisis.

But all of it came with a catch: the government needed to commit to reforms that would stamp out the ingrained practices of corruption that led the country to this point.

Mr el-Halabi is not confident this is a government that can do that.

“Even if this government implements certain reforms, those reforms are most probably going to be in a way aesthetic - some sort of facelifting - in order to lure back international assistance,” he says.

“But we know for a fact that they will not implement the much-needed reforms that can alter the regime and improve life for the Lebanese.” 

Back at the LAU Medical Centre, Dr Ghanem says he is not holding his breath.

"Every single day we hear so many stories about every single one of them that pushes us back again to what we've had ever since the civil war in Lebanon back in 1975. It's just the same story that keeps unfolding again."

"We're in a situation where we don't really dare to hope anymore, and I think that is a huge disaster we're facing. They've taken away our hope."

Published 27 September 2021 at 6:25am
By Claudia Farhart
Source: SBS News