FEATURE – Lebanon faces medicines’ deficit as nation’s drugstores succumb to economic crisis

A deficit of pharmaceuticals looms over Lebanon, where a months-long financial crisis has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has been a challenge even for the world’s strongest economies. For Lebanon, whose currency plunged to a new record low this week, it means additional stress on pharmacists who rely on the official subsidy mechanism.

While the Lebanese pound has officially been pegged to the US dollar at 1,500 since 1997, the black market exchange rate is now up to 15,000 Lebanese pounds per dollar. Established at the onset of the economic crisis, the subsidy mechanism grants importers access to the now scarce US dollars at favorable exchange rates ranging from 1520 to 4000 Lebanese pounds per dollar to procure goods from a pre-established list.

But the mechanism is now cracking under pressure, with many importers incapable of selling their imported goods or importing new batches until they have been reimbursed by the Central Bank, which is reportedly taking very long to go through subsidy applications. As a result, some essential goods, such as pharmaceuticals, have begun disappearing off the shelves.

According to the head of Lebanon’s Order of Pharmacists, Ghassan Al-Amine, around 600 out of the country’s roughly 3,000 pharmacies have closed down, with many others on the verge of bankruptcy.

Pharmacists Face Bankruptcy

The owner of a small family-run pharmacy in the town of Amioun in the northern Koura district, Jean Ojaimi, has experienced the shortage of medication firsthand, as he and hundreds of other pharmacists across the country find it increasingly difficult to keep their businesses afloat.

“The situation is generally bad, and it hit us, pharmacists, especially hard. We are suffering from a significant decrease in inventories, and this is just one of the reasons,” Ojaimi told Sputnik.

Pharmacies used to have reserves, but many have run out of stock now, Ojaimi added.

“What makes matters worse is the smuggling of subsidized medication from Lebanon to nearby countries, specifically Iraq and Egypt, where the medications are resold at several times of their prices in Lebanon,” the head of Lebanon’s Order of Pharmacists told Sputnik.

Ojaimi echoed this statement and suggested that security services should look into such cases.

“Some people don’t care about their country, they care only about their pockets,” the Amioun pharmacist said.

Strike

On Thursday, Lebanon’s pharmacists held a strike to show their dissatisfaction and urge authorities to do something. According to Elias Abou-Karam, owner of Karam Para-Pharmaceuticals, 80-85% of the country’s pharmacists took part in the strike.

“There were one or two pharmacies in each region who operated normally, and I believe that is something good as it would meet the emergency needs of the citizenry. We should not make the matter worse by closing down all the pharmacies,” the business owner told Sputnik.

Abou-Karam’s company imports dietary supplements and other non-pharmaceutical goods that are sold in the country’s drugstores. But as the population’s purchasing power has dropped, many people can no longer afford these items.

Government’s Plans

In an effort to alleviate the pharmaceuticals crisis, the country’s caretaker prime minister met with the minister of public health and the head of Lebanon’s Order of Pharmacists on Friday to adopt a plan to streamline the subsidy mechanism.

However, the government itself is gripped by crisis, as highlighted by a recent spat between the country’s president and designated prime minister.

A prerequisite to unlock a vital IMF bailout package, the formation of a government and implementation of a series of reforms, has been plagued with scandals and delays amid growing frustration among the country’s population. A new wave of protests is reiterating calls for the Lebanon’s political elite to step down.

  

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