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Amid 2 Crises, Lebanon Hurtles Toward Mass Poverty


We're going to head to Lebanon now. Hit by both the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, that country is in the grips of a breathtaking collapse. As the currency devalues, the state is failing. Frequent power cuts mean Lebanese in the capital, Beirut, have to feel their way through the dark city at night. And there are shortages of almost everything. NPR's Ruth Sherlock on a people living on the edge.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: A man walks into a pharmacy in Beirut and points a gun at the pharmacist behind the counter.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

SHERLOCK: In the robbery that was caught on CCTV and shared widely online, the man takes money, medicines and baby diapers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

SHERLOCK: May God replace them for you, he tells the pharmacist as he leaves. These crimes of destitution are happening more and more in Lebanon. In one example confirmed by NPR, an assailant robbed a man on a street only to burst into tears, apologize and tell the victim that he doesn't know how else to feed his children. And for others who are abiding by the law, things are getting tougher. Families that only a few months ago lived comfortably are having to ration food.

AHMAD AMHAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Ahmad Amhaz says he now has to make a thousand calculations of what else to sacrifice before he can even think of buying meat for a meal. Mostly, his family goes without. Amhaz sells household goods online. But now the Lebanese lira has lost 80% of its value against the dollar. His earnings are worth little. And all the while, prices have soared.

AMHAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Amhaz says the family is now so poor they can't even afford the paperwork to register the birth of their baby boy. Decades of government corruption and mismanagement have left Lebanon broke and defaulting on its debts. It can't even pay for fuel for its power plants, so mostly, Lebanese are left with only one or two hours of electricity a day now. Economists warn that it could become like Venezuela.

Medicine is disappearing, and bread is already in short supply. There have been mass layoffs even from hospitals as the country continues to battle with the coronavirus pandemic. Many Lebanese are turning to bartering online. Hassan Hasna has started a Facebook page called Barter Lebanon.

HASSAN HASNA: Now, the focus is on grocery - is on food, is on baby milk, is on diapers, is on everything related - you know, that the main things that we need for daily living. So mainly, these are the things that people are bartering for.

SHERLOCK: Hasna says 18,000 people have joined the group in the last two weeks. A similar Facebook page has 56,000 followers. Hasna says that as well as trading goods, some people use the page to help others in need, simply buying medications, for example, for nothing in return. In these tough times, he hopes this effort can help stave off the indignity of poverty.

HASNA: I just use the word charity. I don't want the image of the group to say that people are begging for things. We are trying to stick together. Together we are stronger. Together we make a difference.

SHERLOCK: The government is seeking money from the international community. But for now, all the Lebanese have is each other.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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