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Blackouts, financial meltdowns and a petrol crisis - the year Lebanon unravelled

by Maya Gebeily | @GebeilyM | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 December 2021 00:00 GMT

A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, in Beirut, Lebanon March 12, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2021, Lebanon’s financial meltdown turned two – and we learned what it means to see a country come undone.

Maya Gebeily is the Thomson Reuters Foundation's correspondent in Beirut

By Maya Gebeily

BEIRUT, Dec 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The decline had been steep and painful already. By the time Lebanon entered 2021, thousands had already lost their jobs, around half the population had been plunged into poverty, and the explosion at the Beirut port the previous year had stolen lives, limbs, and homes.

But this year, Lebanon simply began to come apart at the seams.

It began with the electricity. Half-day power cuts became the norm as both the state provider and private generator owners began rationing ever-precious diesel. 

Buildings are seen at night during a power cut in some areas in Beirut, Lebanon July 6, 2020. Picture taken July 6, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

All but a privileged few were left to sweat out the stifling summer heat with no air conditioning, no fans or even functioning refrigerators.

One friend with marginally better electricity provision than her elderly relatives began storing their diabetes and heart medications in her fridge.

With pharmacies running out of life-saving provisions, they couldn’t risk the six-month stockpile they had painstakingly collected going bad in the heat and rolling blackouts.

In the country's most impoverished city Tripoli, a single and unemployed mother told me she could no longer afford the cheapest offer from a private generator: less than $15 a month to keep her fridge and a few lightbulbs on.

Her days were spent in total darkness, except the single hour she spent at a soup kitchen picking up the only meal she and her sons would eat that day.

Then, came the petrol crisis: week after week, lines outside fuelling stations grew longer. Four-wheel drives with tinted windows zipped into "VIP" lines where, by flashing a few bills that were worth less and less each day, they could get access to shrinking stocks of subsidized gas.

People wait in cars to get fuel at a gas station in Zalka, Lebanon, August 20, 2021. Picture taken August 20, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By the time subsidies were lifted, a full tank cost nearly twice the minimum monthly wage. Friends pulled their children out of extracurricular activities, no longer able to afford the tank to get them there. 

It affected every facet of life, every product or service considered essential and once widely available. Pain medication. Infant vaccines. Baby formula. Sanitary pads and tampons. School notebooks. Therapy. Bottled water. Even the staple pita bread.

In 2021, all these things became reserved for the ultra-privileged, now defined as those with foreign currency or connections with political parties or businessmen. 

The unravelling was, perhaps, a wake-up call for the Lebanese. It undid the mirage of a liberal, booming economy that had propelled the country through its post-war years and somehow survived the worldwide crash of 2008.

In 2021, Lebanon came face to face with its ugly underbelly: an economy with few formal opportunities for the underprivileged, one of the most unequal wealth distributions in the world, and no safety nets for its most marginalized communities. 

We Lebanese came to understand what it means to not have sustainable institutions.

How would we have fared with fuel rationing had we been able to lean on a tramway or train system? Had our rivers been cleaned up, could we have had clean drinking water gush out of the tap, instead of relying on increasingly pricy water bottles?

Instead of each one of us slapping a few solar panels on our roofs now, what if we had fully transitioned to renewables decades ago? 

A solar panel installation is pictured on top of a building in Sehayleh, Lebanon, August 25, 2021. Picture taken August 25, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

The internet cuts became the most literal representation of the country's untethering from the rest of the world: in the COVID-era, they inevitably meant missed meetings, botched interviews, and countless lost opportunities.

While other countries moved towards cashless economies, Lebanon did the opposite. The collapse of the banking system meant hundreds of thousands could no longer use their credit cards abroad – effectively leaving them “unbanked.”

We began carrying wads of cash as thick as books, refusing to deposit another dime in our bank accounts and finding that most local businesses no longer accepted credit card payments. 

As a Lebanese journalist writing about her own country and the broader region, my reporting was a blend of painful, important, and absurd.

Editors in London began morning meetings with, "So, do you have electricity today?" It was empathetic; I was embarrassed. No, I didn’t – but I was okay. Meanwhile, my great-aunt, living alone in a village, had to throw out all her provisions for the winter because they had rotted in her fridge.

Some moments made it difficult to reconcile my reality with what I was supposed to be reporting. I remember sitting in my darkened Beirut apartment one mid-June afternoon during a blackout.

I flicked sweat off my forehead as I tried to understand the mechanics of direct air capture – an advanced technology being tested in Oman that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air as a way to fight climate change.

In other moments, though, reporting was a lifeline.

It introduced me to a housing rights organisation protecting Lebanese, Syrian refugees, and migrant workers from illegal evictions, crucial work that just earned it an international award. 

It led me to interview Lebanese comedians using sarcasm as a sort of life-force against the creeping darkness. 

Inclusive economies, equal access, sustainability, marginalized communities, just transitions, social protections. Writing and reporting within these focus areas is teaching me me the words I need to record an otherwise indescribable situation.

As yet another annus horribilis draws to an end in Lebanon with no solutions in sight, there’s little reason to expect anything happy or new in 2022.

Related stories:

Lebanon hands its undocumented a win - but little work 

Portrait of poverty in Lebanon as UN visits poorest place on Med 

'Like slaves': Lebanon's delivery riders struggle as crisis bites 

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily @gebeilym. Editing by Yasir Khan and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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