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How the Beirut Explosion Will Worsen Lebanon’s Crises

Black smoke rises from burning buildings following a large explosion at the Port of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. An explosion at Lebanon’s main port rocked the capital Beirut and its suburbs, sending plumes of smoke into the skyline.
Black smoke rises from burning buildings following a large explosion at the Port of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. An explosion at Lebanon’s main port rocked the capital Beirut and its suburbs, sending plumes of smoke into the skyline. (Bloomberg)
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Lebanon is no stranger to turmoil and devastation. The small country straddles the geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and endured a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. In the latest blow, a massive blast ripped through the port in its capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4, killing at least 100 people, injuring 4,000 more and damaging buildings across the city. Officials have said it was caused by the detonation of chemicals stored there, without saying whether it was an accident or an attack. The tragedy piles yet another layer of hardship on a country already reeling from its worst financial crisis in decades and struggling to contain a burgeoning coronavirus outbreak.

1. How will the explosion affect the economy?

The badly damaged port facility is Lebanon’s largest maritime gateway, and while the second-biggest port Tripoli has been designated as the alternative, authorities are worried how the import-dependent country will bring in badly needed food, medical supplies and other goods. Lebanon has already been struggling under the weight of its economic meltdown, with the rapid devaluation of the local currency and a volatile exchange rate on the black market fueling inflation, shuttering businesses and plunging many people into unemployment and poverty. Imports have become prohibitively expensive as a result, forcing the central bank to dip into its reserves to subsidize wheat, fuel and medicine. Fuel shortages and bread lines have become common.

2. Will the blast fuel social unrest?

The calamity is the worst Lebanon has suffered in many years, and citizens already fed up with government mismanagement are furious that the blast originated from ammonium nitrate equal to 1,800 tons of TNT stored at the port. Prior to this explosion, one of the deadliest single incidents Lebanon had suffered was the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut in October 1983, which killed 241 servicemen. Lebanon was rocked in October 2019 by a bout of nationwide protests against corruption, economic mismanagement and sectarian politics, which forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Though the unrest has tapered off, the growing economic crisis and sharply rising prices brought angry demonstrators out to the streets again in June.

3. Can Lebanon get help?

After defaulting on a Eurobond repayment in March, Lebanon has embarked on talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion loan program. Negotiations have stalled as Lebanese officials struggle to agree on the scale of losses in the financial system and implement the reforms necessary to unlock the funds. Gulf countries that had previously funneled money to Lebanon are wary that further aid may fall into the hands of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. France said it would send medical supplies and doctors, the United Arab Emirates pledged 30 tons of medical aid, and Germany offered members of its armed forces to aid search operations.

4. Can hospitals handle a disaster and a pandemic?

Beirut’s hospitals are overwhelmed, and some were badly damaged in the blast. Some patients were being treated in parking lots and the health minister said field hospitals were being set up. For over a year, medical practitioners have warned that the government’s failure to pay money it owes hospitals was endangering public health, and the coronavirus outbreak only made matters worse. There were 65 virus deaths and 5,271 cases registered in the country by Aug. 5, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Public hospitals have limited intensive care capacity and have at times been forced to turn off air conditioning and delay surgeries due to fuel shortages.

5. What state is the government in?

Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the blast as a “major national disaster” and said the depot housing the ammonium nitrate had been there since 2014. He pledged punishment for those responsible. Lebanon’s foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, resigned on Aug. 3, the day before the port explosion, accusing colleagues of lacking any intention to institute meaningful reforms and warning that conflicting interests threatened to turn the country into “a failed state.” Hitti had been in the post less than seven months, and his departure after so short a time reflected the frictions paralyzing the government.

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