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Lifting medicine subsidies threatens Lebanon with more chaos

Makram Rabah

Published: Updated:

Many Lebanese traveling from far-off lands back home have subsisted their customary gifts to family and loved ones with bags full of medication instead. Baby milk formula and simple pain killers widely available in pharmacies around the world are now on the diaspora’s shopping lists.

A range of essential items are either out of stock or can only be purchased at exuberant prices on the black market.

This medical crisis was further exasperated last week after the Lebanese Ministry of Health announced its decision to lift or in some cases, reduce the subsidies placed on medicines.

The move will have a dire effect on availability of amongst other drugs, chronic disease medication. It will place these products outside the reach of over 70 percent of the population.

The medicine calamity is not something to be taken lightly, nor will it simply peter out similar to other challenges the Lebanese people have faced over the years.

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In reality the abysmal situation of the healthcare system along with government policy covering the sector is nothing but a reflection of the decay of the Lebanese political system. Over the decades its malaise has allowed the ruling establishment and its network of pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists to drain state resources and expose Lebanon’s health security to risk.

The Ministry of Health’s decision to lift subsides took a long time, coming after the central bank warned that its fast depleting foreign currency reserves were no longer sufficient to pay for essential medical products.

That the Lebanese cabinet under Najib Mikati has failed to make any significant strides in its ongoing talks with the International Monterey Fund, a much needed step is needed if the country is to receive the $10bn in loans it has requested.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati attends a joint press conference after his meeting with his Jordanian counterpart at the Grand Serail in Beirut, on September 30, 2021. (AFP)
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati attends a joint press conference after his meeting with his Jordanian counterpart at the Grand Serail in Beirut, on September 30, 2021. (AFP)

For decades many of Lebanon’s politicians and their circle of cronies have allowed international pharmaceutical brands to dictate the price of medicine while blocking access to cheaper generic drugs. This exploitative policy has been a drain on Lebanon’s healthcare funding for decades.

The health ministry’s commission that prices medication - with many officials in place for decades – accept the hefty prices that are imposed on them by these multinational pharma companies or their local agents.

A prudent policy that balances the healthcare needs of the people running in parallel to affordable budgets adopted by the government has never happened.

It is essential that this happens as soon as possible.

Coincidently, Lebanon has a flourishing pharmaceutical manufacturing sector but it has never become the main supplier of drugs to the Lebanese market. It only acts to offer auxiliary products deliberately because by importing ingredients and selling abroad it generates foreign currency. The monies gathered are then invested outside of the country.

Equally some pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities receive subsidies and tax exemptions, but their holding companies prefer to export products to Africa and other parts of the world rather than supply the local market. When existing drug supplies in Lebanon are limited and expensive, these national policies are both unethical and dangerous.

Put simply, successive Lebanese governments have failed to introduce one single sustainable policy where subsidies offered to provide basic healthcare and access to medication for all citizens.

Noticeably, in the recent past most medication for chronic diseases was subsidized by international donors such as Young Men Christian Association- Lebanon (YMCA). But the process of obtaining these drugs was highly centralized and broad access for people wasn’t possible.

Given that essential reforms are not in the horizon the vast majority of Lebanese people are left with few options when trying to obtain regular medication when required.

On this front the Lebanese diaspora have been active in their attempts to raise funds to purchase and ship meds and other lifesaving and essential healthcare products to loved ones struggling in their homeland.

At many check-in desks at airports around the world for flights to Lebanon, you will see lots of people carrying extra bags with essential meds.

Rather than trying to look for easy ways out of their ballooning predicaments, the Lebanese at large need to stop taking political placebos to avoid confronting their rivals properly. They need to ultimately tackle the real disease of corruption and abduction of the state by unscrupulous politicians and their cronies.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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