Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943 ended France’s 23-year mandate over Lebanon, the country’s stability has been disrupted by brutal civil war, regional political and military disputes, and multiple Israeli invasions, most notably which took place in 1982. More importantly, a series of corrupt, absent or ineffective leaders and governments over the years have helped the country join the ranks of potential failed states. But perhaps nothing more clearly reveals the desperation, decline and needless trauma the country has experienced than the enormous explosion that occurred in the port of Beirut just over two years ago, on August 4, 2020.
The explosion was caused by a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The highly volatile chemical compound remained abandoned for years in a port warehouse, until on a typical bustling day in the city it exploded, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Lebanon’s imminent collapse had been predicted long before the explosion, and even before the start of the COVID pandemic. But it is undeniable that the port explosion precipitated a downward spiral that has not yet been reversed. And while much has been written about the political and economic ramifications of the explosion – most of Lebanon’s imports and exports passed through the port of Beirut – much has been lent less attention to its significant social cost.
Immediate social consequences
The consequences of the explosion were chaotic and destructive. A total of 218 people died, approximately 7,000 people were injured, and 150 were left with a permanent physical disability. Due to the port’s location near residential areas, 77,000 apartments were damaged, which displaced 300,000 people and left 80,000 children homeless. Damage to roads, energy infrastructure, water and sanitation facilities, and other public services was extensive. And of course the psychological damage For city dwellers, especially those close to the disaster site or those who lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods in the blast, it was immeasurable.
Apart from this immediate human cost, it soon became clear that the infrastructure destroyed by the explosion would cause even more difficulties in the near future. In the midst of a global pandemic, three hospitals near the port were destroyed and three others were damaged, leaving Beirut with less than half of its pre-blast health infrastructure. This was compounded by the destruction of 17 containers of medical supplies and personal protective equipment. Due to the large number of injuries caused by the explosion, hospitals used up months of supplies in a few days. Most of these supplies have not yet been replenished.
The port’s importance to Lebanon’s imports and exports meant that an important connection to the world was severed with its destruction. This had immediate consequences. The explosion destroyed Lebanon’s only grain silosas well as multiple warehouses where food was kept, and although other ports in the country, such as Tripoli, increased their capacity, the country’s food supply chain was massively interrupted, adding to the social cost of the explosion.
Long-term social results
Despite its global profile, the city of Beirut is currently suffering from significant social deterioration, the consequences of which are also evident in the rest of the country. Barely a year after the explosion, the price of products had already increased a staggering 580%half of the Lebanese population lived for below the poverty line and almost a million people in Beirut, more than half of them children, could no longer afford food, water and electricity. Today, hospitals, schools and other facilities are turning off their lights in an attempt to save fuel and cut their skyrocketing electricity costs.
Since the explosion, doctors have begun to report that there are empty medicine shelves in hospitals, and the country as a whole now lacks both basic drugs, such as epinephrine, and more advanced pharmaceuticals, such as those needed to treat cancer. Patients have started skipping or rationing medications. And what is most worrying is that doctors and nurses are leaving Lebanon en masse due to poor working conditions and insufficient pay to cover their needs in the face of skyrocketing prices. In June 2022, the director of the largest public hospital in Lebanon reported that had lost 75% of doctors of the hospital and a third of its nursing staff in the last few years alone.
Overall, the level of desperation and poverty in the country is staggering, leading many to label the nation a failed state. Many residents rely heavily on remittances and items sent by friends and family abroad to survive. Many also rely on the black market for items like medicine, stamps, fuel, and even paper. With a food inflation that has reached 332%, foods such as meat and fruit have become luxury products. Meanwhile, due to the electricity crisis, people spend the day looking for places to charge their phones. And the UN has recently sounded the alarm over the country’s water system, as many residents do not receive the minimum amount of daily water by global standards.
And now that?
In 2021, the World Bank reported that Lebanon’s multiple crises were probably among the most severe the world had seen in more than a century. Corruption, nepotism, elitism and a general system that “has benefited a few for a long time” are seen as important factors in this decline, and are some of the same factors that led to the port explosion in the first place. Extensive investigations found that many Lebanese officials were aware of the risks of the abandoned ammonium nitrate, yet did nothing to mitigate them, much less protect the public. It seems that, at least for now, trauma and humiliation inflicted on the Lebanese people are endless.
With the political situation constantly changing and with no obvious solution in sight to the multiple economic crises plaguing the country, it is unclear how, when and if Lebanon will be able to restore its former exceptional brilliance. As the country’s health minister recently stated: “There is no doubt that Lebanon is a sick country now, but the main question is whether it is a terminal disease or a disease that can be cured.” With so many factors at play – such as poverty, hunger and general despair, to name a few – Lebanon needs help important to overcome its many challenges.
The original and extended version of this article was published in Arab Center Washington DC.