Lebanon's supermarket shelves left empty amid panic buying

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Supermarket shelves are left empty in Lebanon as panic buyers rush to purchase goods while the country’s out-of-control inflation leaves many worried about buying basic necessities, photos on Twitter showed Wednesday.

Lebanon’s currency, the lira is now trading close to 9,000 to $1 – compared to its official peg of 1,507. Even bread, a subsidized good, has not been immune to the lira’s historic inflation, and witnessed a 33 percent increase in price Tuesday up to 2,000 lira, from 1,500.

The currency has lost over 80 percent of its value, and one close watcher of the Lebanese economy on Twitter hypothesized that the empty shelves were a result of panic buying as people sought to front run devaluation.

It is unclear just how widespread the empty shelves are, with scattered reports from around the country, but pictures of empty shelves from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south were seen on social media. In Lebanon’s capital Beirut, one of Al Arabiya English’s correspondents reported that similar scenes were found at one local supermarket, but a couple larger chain stores in Beirut and just to the north were well-stocked.

In May, it was reported that food prices on average had risen by 55 percent in the country, and now in some severe cases people have begun bartering their belongings for items, such as milk powder for infants. Another group, the Consumer Protection Association, says food prices have risen 72 percent, AFP reported.

Read more: Lebanon army scraps meat from meals as prices skyrocket due to economic crisis

The country is currently in the grips of an economic crisis that has not seen such depths since the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. A severe dollar shortage sparked the rapid economic downturn late last year.

Lebanon produces nearly nothing locally, and even locally produced goods require imports for things such as packaging and labeling, and in November of last year – just a month after nationwide protests kicked off – importers began sounding the alarm that if they were unable to secure dollars to pay for imports, shortages of food and medical supplies would soon materialize. The country imports around 80 percent of its food, which it desperately needs dollars to pay for.

The government subsidized the purchase of dollars for wheat, fuel, and medicine shortly after importers sounded the initial warning call.

Last week, the state-run electricity building in Beirut was fortified with extra barriers, and this week, power shortages have shot up. In Beirut, the government typically provides 21 hours of power a day, while other areas receive only a few hours. Costly private generators typically make up the gap, but recently even the generator providers have shut out the lights in some Beirut neighborhoods, leaving Lebanese in the dark.

Read more: Daily power cuts, expensive generators: Electricity plays into Lebanon protests

The country is currently in talks with the International Monetary Fund in hopes to secure a bailout package, but discussions have been rocky, with disputes between the government and the central bank breaking out over the size of state losses recorded.

On Monday, the director general of Lebanon’s Finance Ministry, a member of the team negotiating with the IMF, quit his position in protest over the way leaders were handling the situation. His resignation followed that of Henri Chaoul, who also resigned from the team negotiating with the international lender, saying he saw no real will to reform.

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