Beirut Explosion Comes As Lebanon Faces Worst Crisis in History

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A massive blast that ripped through the port in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, killed dozens, wounded thousands and damaged buildings across a country grimly familiar with upheaval. Officials have said it was caused by the detonation of chemicals stored there, without saying whether it was an accident or an attack. The tragedy piles yet another layer of hardship on a country already reeling from the worst financial crisis in its history and struggling to contain a burgeoning coronavirus outbreak.

1. How will the explosion of Beirut’s port affect the economy?

The badly damaged facility is Lebanon’s biggest port, and while the second-biggest port in Tripoli has been designated as the alternative, authorities are worried how the import-dependent country will bring in badly needed food, medical supplies and other goods. Lebanon has already been struggling under the weight of its economic meltdown, with the rapid devaluation of the lira and a soaring exchange rate on the black market fueling inflation, shuttering businesses and plunging many people into unemployment and poverty. The lira’s devaluation by some 80% against the dollar since August has made imports prohibitively expensive, forcing the central bank to dip into its reserves to subsidize wheat, fuel and medicine. Fuel shortages and bread lines have become common.

2. Can Lebanon rely on foreign aid?

After defaulting on a March Eurobond repayment, Lebanon embarked upon talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion loan program. Negotiations have stalled as Lebanese officials struggle to agree on the scale of losses in the financial system and implement the economic reforms necessary to unlock the funds. Gulf countries that had previously funneled money to Lebanon are wary that further aid would fall into the hands of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. France, which hosted a 2018 international donors conference that resulted in pledges of over $11 billion in loans and grants to Lebanon, has said an IMF bailout is the country’s only option, though it has expressed willingness to render aid after the port explosion.

3. Will the blast fuel further social unrest?

The calamity is the worst Lebanon has suffered in decades, and citizens already fed up with government mismanagement are furious that the blast was set off by an improperly stored cache of ammonium nitrate equal to 1,800 tons of TNT. Lebanon was rocked in October by a bout of nationwide protests against corruption, economic mismanagement and sectarian politics. Though the unrest has tapered off, the growing economic crisis and sharply rising prices brought angry demonstrators out to the streets again in June.

4. Does Lebanon have the hospital capacity to handle a disaster and a pandemic?

Beirut’s hospitals are overwhelmed, and some were severely damaged in the blast. Some patients are being treated in parking lots and the health minister said field hospitals were being set up. For over a year, medical practitioners have warned that the government’s failure to repay money it owes hospitals was endangering public health, and the coronavirus outbreak only made matters worse. Public hospitals have limited intensive care capacity and have at times been forced to turn off air conditioning and delay surgeries due to fuel shortages.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Human Rights Watch report on how the Lebanese economic crisis is affecting hospitals
  • A World Bank report on reducing poverty in Lebanon
  • An IMF report on Lebanon’s economy

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