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Lebanon Sees Price Gouging Of Basic Necessities During Economic Crisis


The World Bank says the economic crisis in Lebanon is one of the worst that the world has seen in over a century. This happens in a country with famous tourist sites that has had a thriving middle class and legendary nightlife. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Beirut.

Ruth, thanks so much for being with us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin with what you've been hearing from people.

SHERLOCK: You know, Scott, it's really terrible. Yesterday, we went to this Armenian Christian neighborhood that used to be thriving. We met with Hasme Tabatyan (ph) there. She was a home care worker but now has no regular income, and she tells us anything she does earn doesn't go far because of that inflation you mentioned.

HASME TABATYAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She says she can't afford to pay for a generator to get electricity when the state's power is out. And this is really one of the basics in Lebanon because state power now only works for a couple of hours a day sometimes. And it's a swelteringly hot summer here. She also can't make her rent payments. She says that she might be evicted by the end of July if she can't pay. And this, unfortunately, is not unique. It's typical of what people are going through. We've met, for example, and out-of-work chef who now collects trash for a living and a teacher that can't make ends meet on their salary. And that's not surprising because baby milk now costs about a quarter of what they would earn in a month.

SIMON: And supplies of everything seem to be running short, I gather.

SHERLOCK: There are shortages of the basics, so you see gas lines that are miles long with people pushing the cars along by hand in those lines. We've already talked about the power cuts, but most seriously is the impact on the health care system. There's public hospitals shutting down, and shelves in pharmacies are sparsely stocked. It's not uncommon to see people breaking down because they've gone from pharmacy to pharmacy trying to find sometimes, you know, important life-saving medication.

SIMON: Ruth, why is all of this happening now?

SHERLOCK: The thing is this is sadly, in many ways, a preventable crisis that is of Lebanon's own making. The people in the government and the banking sector here have either mismanaged, squandered or stolen the cash reserves, and now the state says it's out of money. Lebanese people are understandably furious. I spoke about this with Yasmine Masri (ph). She's become a kind of instant celebrity here after a video went viral of her shouting, shame on you, at a top politician in a restaurant and his bodyguards beating her up. She tells me the crisis is actually a way of uniting people.

YASMINE MASRI: Because you know what actually unites people - when everybody gets poor, when everybody in the same country cannot go to the bank and not have medicine, cannot have water running, cannot have electricity, then everybody is looking at the same, you know, disaster. And this is when you wake up.

SHERLOCK: This is a very divided country, and people used to support the politicians that represent their sect mostly. Now increasingly, though, people are saying that all politicians are the same. They're all part of the same corrupt political class.

SIMON: And the international community is reluctant to help in many ways, aren't they?

SHERLOCK: That's correct. You know, they've seen financial help squandered in the past through incompetence and corruption. They want major reforms, but the politicians here don't seem able or willing to implement those.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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