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Nation & World

The Economic Crisis In Lebanon May Be One Of The Worst In The World Since The 1800s

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Step out on the street in Beirut, Lebanon, and one thing you'll notice is a lot of traffic lights don't work. Then you might see the gas lines and bare shelves in once well-stocked pharmacies. Lebanon was a vacation spot, a tourist mecca, home to a thriving middle class. It is now in an economic crisis that has been grinding on for more than a year. Well, NPR's Ruth Sherlock has lived and reported from there for years, and she joins us now from Beirut.

Hey, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: So big picture, how bad is this?

SHERLOCK: Well, the World Bank says this country is now in one of the worst economic crises anywhere in the world likely since the 1800s. So there's massive inflation. Prices are soaring. But people's salaries are worth a tiny fraction of what they were. Lebanon's middle class, which used to be large, has just been gutted, Mary Louise. You know, for example, I went to this upper-class neighborhood recently and visited this church charity that was giving out food aid. And in line waiting for that food aid, there were people in Mercedes, SUVs, BMWs, all waiting to get rice and cooking oil. And of course, all of this is so much worse for people who were already poor. The United Nations' children's agency, UNICEF, says more than 70% of Lebanese now don't have enough food or enough money to buy food.

KELLY: It's such an image, people driving Mercedes, and yet they're showing up to get free rice and oil. What happened? They must have had money not that long ago. What happened?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, with the collapse of the currency, people would normally turn to their savings in dollars. And many of these people lost access to their wealth, though, overnight because Lebanese banks froze dollar accounts to prevent a run on those banks. I spoke with Hala Dahrouge. She works in advertising. But when the economic crisis hit, she started this Facebook page, LibanTroc. It was meant as a kind of bartering site for people to exchange goods. It's ballooned, and now there's 70,000 members. And she tells me that through it, she's seen the impact of the economic collapse.

HALA DAHROUGE: People who are rich are becoming the new poor. People who were, like, travelling three times a year, who are managers, university teachers, doctors - everyone is becoming poorer because no one has access to any of his basic rights, of his own money.

SHERLOCK: So people now use her Facebook page to ask for funds to pay hospital bills or to get help after they've been made homeless.

KELLY: And I gather even people who have money to pay for medicine - there are shortages. They can't necessarily get it.

SHERLOCK: Yes. You know, the shelves are very sparsely stocked. At one pharmacy that I visited, almost every customer was turned away empty-handed. The pharmacy didn't even have the most basic painkillers. One pharmacist there, Elias Kadi (ph) - he told me what it was like to work there.

ELIAS KADI: People really are crying here. They are begging us, please give us this medicine. We are - need some. For their blood, for example - for anticoagulation - there is no - and if they don't take it, they may die.

KELLY: What about government services - electricity, fuel?

SHERLOCK: The government says it doesn't have any money. So you're seeing this in the breakdown of infrastructure. There's terribly long power cuts here, as well as the fuel shortages, but also critical entities. Like, for example, the Lebanese Army is now relying on foreign aid handouts to provide food for its troops. And in a sign of how bad things are there, the army is also offering helicopter rides to tourists as a way of making U.S. dollars.

And, you know, there isn't a clear solution in sight here. The prime minister and his cabinet resigned after the massive explosion last August, and there has been a failure to form a government so far. So the government's caretaker prime minister is appealing to the international community for funds. But that international community has been burned in the past. They've seen help squandered through incompetence and corruption. So they want major reforms that the politicians won't implement. So Lebanon is on its own for the moment.

KELLY: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, there in the middle of it in Beirut.

Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.