BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 13 (UPI) -- With no new government in sight to adopt reforms that would release urgently needed international aid, poverty is growing in Lebanon, with a pervasive fear that it's going to get worse.
The streets are increasingly filled with beggars, mostly Syrian refugees. The minimum monthly wage has fallen to 600,000 Lebanese lira, the equivalent of $400 just a year ago, currently worth $69 at the black market rate.
In August, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia estimated Lebanon's poverty rate had surged to 55 percent in May, compared to 28 percent last year.
Bader Jamal el Naboulsi, a construction worker from the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, has been jobless for months.
"Now, I just do anything like cleaning homes and carpets or [work] as porter to raise at the end of the day 25,000 LL," which equates to $16 at the official rate and less than $3 at the black market rate, Naboulsi, a father of eight, told UPI. "Some days we sleep without food. I never beg for anything."
But his wife, Rima, is obliged to ask her neighbors for "bread, potatoes or anything they can spare" to feed her children. "I need at least 50,000 LL just to put some food on the table for my children."
What the Lebanese people fear most is that the central bank will not be able to maintain the subsidy over basic commodities. What is left of its U.S. dollar reserves, estimated at $1.8 billion, barely allows it to continue subsidizing wheat, fuel and medicine at the official exchange rate of 1,507 Lebanese pound for $1, compared to LL 3,900 per U.S. dollar traded at the banks and nearly LL 8,700 in the black market.
Already drivers are seen queuing up at the gas stations to fill their tanks while many are touring the pharmacies to get medications that are in short supply.
Lebanon's descent began a year ago with an unprecedented economic and financial crisis resulting in the national currency losing 80 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar; inflation, poverty and unemployment rates reaching record levels; foreign currency reserves at the Central Bank nearing depletion; and severe banking restrictions depriving depositors of their life savings -- restrictions that remain in place.
The alarming spread of COVID-19 and the Aug. 4 massive blast at the Beirut port accentuated the population's suffering. Many hospitals were badly damaged by the port explosion, at a time the health sector was greatly affected by the financial crisis, facing dwindling medical supplies and shortage of medication due to the lack of liquidity of the dollar.
Like the Naboulsis, the eight-member family of Khaled Suleiman al Assi only "eat meat and chicken if donated." Everything in their house "is by donation -- the TV, the fridge, the oven and even the closet and the blankets," said 13-year-old Amina.
In the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, people are in no better situation.
"Here, not everyone is being paid by Hezbollah in U.S. dollars," one resident, who refused to be identified or disclose what he does for a living, told UPI. "Many poor people, including Syrians, are seen late at night or early morning rushing to the vegetable and fruit markets to get the leftover for free or whenever they hear that donated food boxes are being distributed."
The man, 46, has been unemployed for more than two years.
"My life was completely destroyed...Not only I cannot support my family, I am about to lose the apartment I bought after so many years of hard work because I can no longer pay my housing loan to the bank," he said. "It is a catastrophe...the situation will turn really bad: People will steal or kill to eat."
Despite the "dreadful situation," Hani Bohsali, the owner of Bohsali Foods and president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs in Lebanon, said the country is not at risk of starvation, at least for the time being.
"Anything is possible, but we haven't reached that point...it is not to be compared with Venezuela," Bohsali told UPI, explaining that the country is surviving on its remaining food reserves. "But what will happen in 2021 when no more reserves or money [are] left?"
Venezuela has been in crisis for years, suffering from growing political discontent and a collapsed economy that resulted in skyrocketing hyperinflation, soaring unemployment, widespread poverty and hunger, medicine shortages, power cuts and rising crime rates. Nearly 5 million people have fled the country to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
The humanitarian assistance that poured into Lebanon from numerous countries and international organizations after the Beirut port explosion, which killed more than 190 people and made 300,000 homeless, helped meet immediate needs, but the country cannot survive without sustainable solutions.
Only a big infusion of U.S. dollars -- mainly as part of a program with the International Monetary Fund -- can contribute to adjusting the financial situation, reactivating a stagnant local economy and making fresh U.S. dollars available in the market. However, the IMF and other donor countries won't pay unless the Lebanese authorities adopt requested reforms.
Lebanon's political leaders thus have to end their endless disputes and agree on forming a new government to spare the country another cycle of violence.
"Lifting subsidies mean that the price of bread will triple, 20 liters of gasoline will jump from LL 25,000 to more than LL 75,000 and the salary of an army soldier will drop to $20-$30 a month...and so we will enter an ugly cycle," said Joseph Bahout, the newly appointed director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "The most important is that violence does not exceed a certain level."
With a heavily armed Hezbollah and other groups recently displaying their weapons, the risk of slipping into a civil war is a frightening possibility, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Thursday.
"We are all waiting for the U.S. presidential elections, for Washington and Tehran to resume their negotiations and for a big change in the region," Bahout told UPI. "But the situation may not change: Iran might not accept to negotiate and so Washington will increase its sanctions. We don't know what will happen first: Lebanon's collapse or the regional developments."