Searching for medicines in Lebanon is like being in a dystopian movie.
Last year, a family member of mine there was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. The shock was soon overridden with the realisation that the medication my relative needed was not available in the country.
This coincided with a research project I was doing on Lebanon’s illicit economy. The first-hand experience of trying to find the medication merged seamlessly with my research, providing a live illustration of the depth and breadth of corruption permeating Lebanon, a country where most people are living in despair.
Searching for medication here often feels like engaging in criminal activity. Going from one pharmacy to another in greater Beirut asking for what was needed yielded no results. A relative called, suggesting a particular pharmacy, and gave the first name of someone, for me to mention as an introduction.
I rushed there. As soon as I mentioned the medicine I was looking for, the staff replied: “Who told you to come here?”.
On hearing the name my relative gave me, they asked me to wait “while we go to the back and put price tags on the medicine boxes for you”.
The reason why medicine boxes were available – but hidden and unlabelled – was that pharmacies were expecting government subsidies on medicines to be lifted. The stock was bought at subsidised wholesale prices. Selling it on after the end of the subsidies means a much bigger mark-up in price.
Part of the reason why so many medicines disappeared from the market is because traders and pharmacies were hoarding stock in the hope of making killer profits. And they did, in more than one sense of this chilling term: Their greed meant people unable to source supplies of vital drugs actually died.
Lebanon’s medicine shortage has opened the way for profiteers. The last pharmacy I went to turned out not to have the actual medicine I was after. Later that day, an acquaintance mentioned that he knows someone who brings medicine to Lebanon from Turkey “in his suitcase”.
Over the next few days, this acquaintance acted as a go-between. He was soon changing his story, claiming the man told him that the airport authorities in Istanbul did not allow him to fly and that he will need to “send the medicine by courier”. This meant I would need to pay several times the amount originally quoted.