The world took notice on Aug. 4, 2020 when a large amount of ammonium nitrate at a port in Beirut, Lebanon exploded, killing at least 220, injuring 6000 more and leaving over 300,000 people homeless (1). As of Oct. 19, 2020, investigators suspect that a fire preceding the blast was responsible for the destruction. While the immediate list of injuries and casualties are truly horrific, the blast only revealed a deeper conflict of Lebanon’s struggling healthcare system resulting from economic and political unrest.
Before the explosion took place, Lebanon was already dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis. Dating back to 2019, Lebanon saw its currency drop by almost 70 percent its original value and was already one of the most indebted countries globally mainly due to economic inequality between the wealthy and the poor (2). According to the Washington Post, a series of controversial government taxes, including one on the technology program WhatsApp, followed by a long history of excessive reliance on imports and government borrowing from banks slowly diminished both the nation’s currency and the images of the wealthy and political elites (3). Anti-government protests began in response, and while the majority were peaceful, impatience towards poverty and a refusal by the government to provide economic aid contributed to an eruption of violence between protestors and government officials. The coronavirus only worsened the conflict when the government enforced lockdowns to contain the virus, plummeting currency values further and increasing food prices to an economy already in free fall (4). Dissatisfied citizens began calling for change in the country’s government.
Lebanon’s healthcare system was already struggling to sustain operations as the economic and political crisis prevented many hospitals from accessing medical resources. The devaluing of its currency made it difficult for hospitals to purchase medicine and supplies abroad, while vaccinations, prescriptions and doctor visits became unaffordable for many patients (5). The violent government protests also created strain on hospitals to care for injured protestors in addition to regular patients. As Dr. Elie Saliba described in a National Public Radio interview, during the protests, his clinic at a children’s hospital treated protestors hurt by security at night and cared for children with cerebral palsy during the day (5). The emergence of the coronavirus in 2020 only furthered the stress on hospitals, who now had to treat COVID-19 patients as well.
When the ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, the blast destroyed nearby warehouses and a portion of the sea port close to where the chemical compound was being stored. However, the explosion also severely damaged at least four major hospitals, including St. George, one of Lebanon’s largest (6). St. George, like many other hospitals in Lebanon, was already providing care for injured government protestors, coronavirus victims and other patients. The explosion not only injured caregivers and patients inside the hospital, but also damaged medical equipment and compromised services. None could have felt the impact more directly than the cancer patients of young children. According to an article by the New York Times, many children diagnosed with cancer were receiving chemotherapy treatment on a strict schedule by doctors prior to the explosion (6). Because of the lack of medical supplies and the immediate surge of hospital patients injured by the blast, young children became unable to receive their routine chemotherapy from doctors.
Global response to Lebanon’s healthcare and humanitarian crisis has been full of delay and struggle. While world leaders from countries like France and the United States have pledged to give approximately 300 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon, there have been increased calls for more substantial action aside from donations (2). After the ammonium nitrate explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and later called for significant economic and political reform during an international video conference with global leaders. In the video call, Macron urged Lebanese authorities to act and “respond to the aspirations that the Lebanese people are expressing right now, legitimately, in the streets of Beirut.” (7). However, in the weeks and months following the explosion, political and economic tensions have only continued as Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Lebanese government have resigned following protests for change in the country (2).
Until now, Lebanon’s healthcare crisis has been left unnoticed by many, including the United States, with a system suffering from political and economic corruption. For several years, the Lebanese government has failed to meet the demands of its people, and it unfortunately took the explosion to pressure the country to address healthcare reform. While it appears unlikely that Lebanon will find an immediate solution, the rest of the world has made a collaborative effort to aid the country in the process. One would do a disservice to simply ignore the problem and wish it would resolve on its own. Rather, every nation and individual has a moral obligation to remain informed and provide support in any form during unprecedented times.
Edited by Ryan Chang
Illustrated by Noor Ghanam