BEIRUT — A general strike called for on Wednesday has brought Lebanon’s pharmacy owners to a crossroads, several owners told L’Orient Today: strike to pressure the central bank to honor subsidy payments so they can refill their shelves, or stay open so that residents can access whatever meager drug stocks are left?
“It is unhumanitarian to close our doors on patients, but this has become our only way to voice our concerns,” said Hassan Abbas, the owner of Sahel Pharmacy in the Beirut southern suburb of Haret Hreik, who participated in Friday’s strike.
The strike on Friday is only the most recent protest by pharmacy owners. It follows an announcement from the Health Ministry that drug subsidies will be ended for all but a limited list of “priority” medicines. However, the ministry has not yet provided pharmacies with this list, pushing the pharmacy owners’ association to call for a strike until the owners receive it.
They contend that importers will not distribute medicines in the market until they know which drugs to sell at subsidized prices and which to sell at the parallel market exchange rate. The lira’s value hit another record low today, exchanging for more than LL19,000 to the US dollar.
Pharmacists who spoke with L’Orient Today said that the publication of this list is the only way to make pharmaceutical product importers distribute their stock.
“Pharmacies are short on medicines, even the most basic ones such as Panadol and Advil, along with medications used to treat nausea and diarrhea,” Laila Koaik of Union Pharmacy in Beirut said.
Koaik did not close her pharmacy today. Personally, she said, she feels that “importers will not be pressured if I close my doors, and the government wouldn’t care ... The only affected [entity] in this case is patients in need of medicines.” However, she said she supports the demands of her colleagues who have opted to protest.
With invoices allegedly backlogged at Banque du Liban, whose mandatory minimum foreign currency reserves have reached a critical threshold, importers have reportedly been hoarding their goods to avoid selling products at a loss should they find out the central bank is no longer subsidizing them. On Wednesday, videos on social media circulated showing residents in Tripoli storming a medicine warehouse that was found to be hoarding products currently missing from the markets.
“Importers are getting their products through credit-based loans from suppliers abroad, which means that importers get their first shipments without having to cover the bill right away, but would have to eventually pay for the products before placing their second order,” Abbas said.
He added, “Panic buying and smuggling are exacerbating the shortages” caused by delays from BDL’s payments.
The situation has forced residents to endure shortages that run the gambit of drugs to treat chronic illnesses to infant formula.
Koaik said that products she used to receive in shipments of dozens are now being delivered to her store in pairs.
Wissam, the son of a hypertension patient, told L’Orient Today he has been struggling to find not only the medicine prescribed to his father but a generic alternative as well. According to him, they have had to resort to having their relatives abroad sending them the medication.
Another patient said she had been searching for more than a month for two injections she needs, visiting tens of pharmacies. As she does not have access to “fresh” dollars to pay to bring in medicine from abroad, she ended up sending to her friends en masse and asking them to ask their friends for help in finding the products. Her friends were finally able to get her the injections — one from a distributor and the second from a pharmacy.
In addition to being low on stocks, Koaik said some importers have started asking for full payments for drugs up front, while they used to allow pharmacists a month so that they could sell their products on to customers and use that money to pay the suppliers.
Furthermore, a pharmacist in Clemenceau, who participated in the strike, told L’Orient Today he fears that importers whom he had already paid for products would refuse to deliver the list of medicines he had bought unless the ministry released its subsidy list. “I need to pay my bills, I can not afford any halt in deliveries or delays,” he said.
Yesterday, BDL Gov. Riad Salameh said in a meeting with caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan that the central bank had started issuing payments for importers’ pending invoices.
The central bank has been subsidizing medicine since October 2019, when the currency first deviated from the official peg of LL1,507.5 to $1. With the lira having lost more than 90 percent of its value in the two years since, residents are forced to shell out increasingly untenable amounts of money for drugs and other essential goods, even as unemployment has skyrocketed and the minimum wage has remained steady for those who are employed.
BEIRUT — A general strike called for on Wednesday has brought Lebanon’s pharmacy owners to a crossroads, several owners told L’Orient Today: strike to pressure the central bank to honor subsidy payments so they can refill their shelves, or stay open so that residents can access whatever meager drug stocks are left?“It is unhumanitarian to close our doors on patients, but this has become...