Lebanon minister warns health sector threatened over dollar shortage

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Lebanon’s health minister on Tuesday urged the central bank to release US dollars over a hard currency shortage limiting medical imports to the protest-hit country.

“The sector is under serious threat,” caretaker minister Jamal Jabak, who is close to the powerful Iran-backed movement Hezbollah, told a news conference.

“A hospital without medical supplies cannot operate,” Jabak said.

The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the greenback at around 1,500 for two decades and the currencies are used interchangeably in daily life.

But amid a deepening economic crisis, banks have gradually been reducing access to dollars in recent months, forcing importers to resort to money changers offering a higher exchange rate and sparking price hikes.

On the open market, the dollar has been selling for 2,000 pounds.

Jabak said the central bank was ready to supply medical equipment importers with only half the dollars they need at the official rate.

He urged the banking institution to provide all necessary dollars at this rate avoid hospitals raising their prices and patients footing the bill.

“We hope all those concerned -- especially the central bank governor -- release these funds,” he said.

“I don’t think the Lebanese people, with everything they are going through, can put up with their medical bills being increased.”

Importers warned on Sunday that the country’s stock would only last weeks, as dialysis filters, heart valves and supplies for respirators had already started to run low.

Lebanon has been gripped since October 17 by unprecedented anti-government protests over a wide variety of issues, including a crumbling economy.

The government stepped down less than two weeks into the nationwide demonstrations, but a new cabinet has not been formed.

Earlier this month, hospitals threatened to close to all but emergency patients for a day if the central bank did not release the key dollars for medical imports.

Last month, before the protests, the central bank said it would facilitate access to dollars for importers of petroleum products, wheat and medicine.

A group representing companies in the private sector have called for a general strike on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

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