Mohamad Zarif scoured about 20 Beirut pharmacies looking for prescription medicine for his mother’s arthritis, so painful that it left her “screaming and crying”. Yet every pharmacy was out of stock. His frantic search finally reached war-torn Syria, where a contact bought Iranian-produced versions of the drugs and sent them to him.

The 29-year-old is not alone: the struggle faced by Lebanese patients in acquiring vital medicines starkly illustrates the severity of the economic crisis. Cancer patients battle to find medication, patients’ friends and family import drugs in suitcases and some pharmacists bemoan a lack of basic supplies such as Panadol.

In recent weeks, the health ministry has asked pharmacists to limit the quantity of drugs they sell to customers in an effort to stem panic buying, triggered by a central bank warning on an expected shortage of hard currency for vital imports, including medicine, by year’s end. Patients and wholesalers subsequently stockpiled medicines, contributing to widespread shortages.

“We asked [pharmacists] to sell only one box per person,” the health ministry said. It added that the authorities were forcing some importers that had stockpiled medicines to send the goods to pharmacists.

The shortages come as Lebanon endures its worst economic crisis in 30 years, grappling with a plunging currency, hyperinflation and soaring unemployment and poverty. It is also blighted by political paralysis as rival parties fail to agree on forming a new government, more than two months after the prime minister resigned after an explosion at Beirut’s port killed at least 190 people.

Goldman Sachs estimated in September that gross hard currency reserves were down to $20bn by August, and falling by $2bn a month. The investment bank said the reserves could be exhausted within 12 months without remedial action.

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As the central bank struggles to protect its diminishing reserves, it has prioritised allocating dollars at an official exchange rate to importers in sectors such as medicine, fuel and food. The measure is supposed to protect essential goods from soaring inflation.

After the warning by central bank governor Riad Salame that triggered the panic buying, Naaman Naddour, the director responsible for subsidies at the bank, told the Financial Times he could not predict how long it could keep up its support for imports.

He said the institution had already allocated $1bn for medicine imports so far in 2020, rejecting complaints from importers that obtaining dollars was slow and impeding their ability to bring in the medicines.

“The stock levels we have are limited and not made to cover this kind of high demand,” said Karim Gebara, head of the pharmaceutical importers syndicate, explaining why the panic buying stripped shelves. “Demand was three times higher than normal.”

Lebanon imports most of its medicine from countries such as Germany. But now Lebanese flying into Beirut bring suitcases crammed with treatments for friends and family, say patients and their informal medicine mules, as doctors advise patients to look for alternatives to their prescriptions.

Signs are appearing that the shortages are hurting those with chronic illnesses. Nabil Shasha, head of the emergency department at Rafiq Hariri University Hospital, Beirut’s largest public health institution, said that in the past two months, “because of a shortage of certain medications, you have worsening of heart failure symptoms”.

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Nagi El Saghir, president of the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation, said drugs to prevent recurrence of disease, including Tamoxifen, were not available. “Patients are paying the price of bad governance, corruption,” said Dr Saghir.

Hala, a pharmacist in Beirut, used to keep two to three months worth of drugs in stock for conditions ranging from diabetes to heart disease. But for the past few months, replenishment orders to suppliers have only been part-filled, if at all. Demand has rocketed.

“Finally, I am out of stock,” Hala said, gesturing to drawers of medicine behind her counter. Even Panadol was absent.

Companies supplying drugs such as cancer medicines have begun asking for proof of prescription, and patient identity cards, before selling treatments, she added.

Mr Gebara said the shortage was exacerbated by “luggage smugglers” who take advantage of the favourable exchange rate offered to importers by the central bank as well as lax purchasing rules to sell the drugs abroad for a profit.

In October, 18 people were arrested at Beirut airport over suspected medicine smuggling, the Internal Security Forces said.

The few boxes Mr Zarif was able to procure for his mother will soon run out; he fears for the future and where he will next get what she needs. “We are heading towards the Venezuela scenario because of the people who are ruling us,” he said.

Via Financial Times