Updated: Oct 7, 2021
4th August 2020 was a normal day for 26-year-old pediatric and neonatal intensive care unit nurse, Pamela Elias Zeitoun. As she starts preparing for the end of her shift, suddenly there is an explosion that destroys the hospital. In the rubble and chaos, she realizes that there are three incubators containing premature babies that have been badly damaged. Not thinking about her safety, she carried those babies out of the ruined hospital and kept them alive for more than 90 minutes without the machines they needed for survival and got them to safety. Now one year later, the babies are healthy and thriving and Nurse Pamela is hailed a hero. But what happened that day?
The same evening a large amount of ammonium nitrate that was stored at the Port of Beirut exploded causing at least 218 deaths, 7,000 injuries, US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. A cargo of 2,750 tonnes of the substance (equivalent to around 1.1 kilotons of TNT) had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures for the past six years, after having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the abandoned ship MV Rhosus. The explosion was preceded by a fire in the same warehouse, but as of April 2021, the exact cause of the detonation is still under investigation.
The blast was felt across Turkey, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, parts of Europe, and was heard in Cyprus, more than 240 km away. It was detected by the United States Geological Survey as a seismic event of magnitude 3.3 and is considered one of the most powerful artificial non-nuclear explosions in history. The Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency in response to the disaster. In its aftermath, protests erupted across Lebanon against the government for its failure to prevent the disaster. Due to the widespread anti-government protests, then Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned along with the rest of the cabinet leaving the country with no government.
The country was thrown into chaos. It destabilized an already weak economy, food and basic necessities were scarce and fuel was in short supply which meant that every aspect of the common man’s life was affected. There seemed to be no hope for the country as things got worse as the months progressed. As of 26th July 2021, the new Prime Minister is Najib Makiti, a billionaire business mogul who has previously served as the Prime Minister in 2005 and from 2011-2014.
He was named the Prime Minister-Designate and is going to be working alongside the President of the country, Michel Aoun. Makiti effectively ran unopposed receiving 72 votes and was the obvious majority against his opponent Nawaf Salam who got only one vote. He was appointed to his post 11 days after the resignation of Saad Hariri, the former Prime Minister-Designate who failed to form a government after a nine-month deadlock due to the opposition.
Even before the pandemic began, Lebanon’s economy was in trouble. Its public debt-to-gross domestic product (what a country owes compared to what it produces) was the third-highest in the world; unemployment stood at 25%. Currently over half the country is below the poverty line and the currency has lost over 90% of its value. Aoun said that the party’s priority for the incoming government is “stopping the financial collapse” through a bailout agreement with the IMF, forensic audit, and other reforms.
A statement that was released by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi, stated that “The explosion … has accelerated a lot of things, that’s for sure, The crisis in the economy, the currency devaluation, as well as the governance vacuum, has meant a breakdown of public services at a time when they are most needed.” For many people in the country, basic necessities such as food, water, fuel, internet, etc still remain compromised and things like education seem like luxuries when they should not be.
The country’s politicians can't seem to reach a consensus on how to run the country. With no steady government, the handling of various portfolios and government organisations is being heavily affected and they are unable to provide the support they should be providing to their people. Many international bodies and close allies of Lebanon such as France have refused to offer any aid unless the country’s governance becomes more streamlined and transparent. It seems that the problem here is political and not humanitarian. But as usual, it seems that the common man is bearing the brunt of the mistakes made by the powerful.
A religiously diverse country such as Lebanon becomes an easy target for foreign involvement. This was clear with Iran supporting the Shia Hezbollah movement. Shia Hezbollah is said to be the most powerful group in the country, politically and with the military. Lebanon ranked 137th out of 180 countries (180 being the worst) on Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.
With all these contributing factors, there seems no end in sight for the problems faced by the Lebanese people. Even with international aid and support, the country cannot escape its inevitable fate if the leaders of the country do not prioritize the needs of the people above their own for once and do the right thing and fight for their people.
AP. (2020, August 5th). Lebanon explosion: Massive Beirut blast kills more than 70, injures thousands. The Times Of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/middle-east/massive-beirut-blast-kills-more-than-70-injures-thousands/articleshow/77360097.cms
Chehayeb, K. (2021, July 26th). Lebanon: Najib Mikati named new prime minister-designate. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/26/mikati-appointed-lebanons-new-pm-designate
Chulov, M. (2021, June 28th). ‘This is the end of times’: Lebanon struggles to find political path through its crisis. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/28/this-is-the-end-of-times-lebanon-struggles-to-find-political-path-through-its-crisis
CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX. (2019). Transparency International. https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2019/table/nzl#
Mohammed Hussein and Mohammed Haddad. (2021, August 25th). Infographic: Lebanon is about to run out of water. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/25/lebanons-critical-water-crisis-interactive