Lebanon is on the verge of not being able to feed itself, a British minister warned on Thursday, as the country’s financial crisis hikes poverty and inflation.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, called it “a man-made problem which could have been prevented,” joining a chorus of voices who have blamed Lebanon’s ruling elite for failing to chart a path out of the crisis.
Since last year, the unprecedented meltdown has crashed the currency and wiped out jobs. Photos of people rummaging through dumpsters or selling their belongings online for food have circulated widely in recent months.
A COVID-19 spike and a massive port blast that killed around 200 people in August have compounded their woes.
A silent tsunami
“The most pressing danger is the risk to food security: Lebanon is on the verge of not being able to feed itself,” Cleverly, who met Lebanese officials in Beirut on Thursday, said in a statement.
“Four months on from the blast, Lebanon is threatened by a silent tsunami. Lebanon’s leaders must act.”
Comments about a looming end to subsidies, which have depleted already critical foreign currency reserves, have raised fears of shortages. Lebanon imports lots – including much of its domestic wheat consumption – and produces little.
Lebanon’s central bank and government have traded blame over the crisis. The bank can only maintain basic subsidies for two more months and the state should come up with a plan, Governor Riad Salameh said on Tuesday.
Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab has said lifting subsidies on vital goods without helping the poor could cause “a social explosion.”
Cleverly said any end to subsidies would make things worse. “I reiterate my call to the leaders of Lebanon to do what is needed and deliver reforms,” he said. “The alternative will be horrific.”
Since the beginning of this year, Lebanon’s already battered economy has further suffered due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbating an unprecedented financial meltdown that has brought soaring inflation, poverty and unemployment.
According to the purchasing managers’ index (PMI) compiled by IHS Markit, Lebanese business conditions deteriorated sharply during November while the outlook was also bleak.
The degree of pessimism towards the one-year business outlook in November was among the worst since the survey’s inception in May 2013, with many respondents expecting the current economic crisis to continue.
The faster deterioration in business conditions last month was partly driven by a stronger contraction in output as a result of the imposition of general lockdown restrictions to contain the spread of coronavirus.
November data also pointed to a marked drop in new orders received by Lebanese businesses, with survey respondents saying their customers were hesitant to place orders amid the uncertainty surrounding the health situation.
Lebanon, with a population of around six million, had been recording some 11,000 coronavirus infections on average each week before mid-November, according to the health ministry.
A first country-wide lockdown imposed in March was effective in stemming the spread of the virus, before restrictions were gradually lifted as summer beckoned people outdoors.
But the number of cases surged following the monstrous blast at Beirut’s port on August 4.
Earlier this week, the country gradually eased restrictions in a bid to relieve its struggling economy in time for the festive season, officials said.
Acting health minister Hamad Hassan told reporters the country “will gradually reopen” to give citizens and businesses a respite ahead of Christmas and end of year holidays.
Restaurants reopened at 50% capacity, but bars and nightclubs remained closed and weddings prohibited, while an overnight curfew started from 11pm instead of 5pm.
Schools also reopened but with some classes still held online.
Heath experts, however, warn the danger of a rise in infections still exists and that the hoped-for results to stem the virus thanks to the curbs would not be known for several days.