Lebanon: Very difficult days as families are brought to their knees

10 February 2020, 22:34 | Updated: 10 February 2020, 23:12

Even in the supposedly affluent downtown area of Beirut, you can see the impact Lebanon's economic crisis is having.

The ATM machines at the banks are smashed in. Restaurants and shops are boarded up. The roads to the government buildings are blocked by temporary high concrete walls.

When a government is barricading itself from its people, you know it's in trouble.

But head out to the suburbs and the extent of this crisis really becomes clear.

I've joined social worker Hayat Fakhreldin as she checks on struggling families.

We wander through the narrow, shabby streets.

After just a little time with her, it's clear that these are very difficult days for Lebanon.

In the doorway of one house we meet a dear old lady called Alice al Zinaty who invites us in and introduces us to her daughter Heba and her grandson Salah.

Madame Alice explains how she collects tin cans from the rubbish bins. She makes the equivalent of a couple of pounds a week.

"There is no Lebanese state. Where is the state? If there was a state, they would see me picking up cans at the rubbish dump and they would try to help me... I don't even have enough money to go to the doctor," she says.

Outside, the rain has started falling heavily. It's cold in Beirut at this time of year, too.

Hayat, the social worker, is constantly on her phone, speaking to more families with no money, wanting help.

She allows us to listen in to her call.

"How much would they buy the fridge from you for?" she asks the woman on the end of the line.

"It's worth 150,000 lira (£75). Someone will buy it from me for 100,000 (£50). But what do I do without a fridge with my kids?" the woman replies. "What can I do? What can I do?"

We head over to the home of the family at the end of the line. They are the Tahmazs and they live a few streets away.

"Hello, you are in the dark?" Hayat says.

"Yes, I don't have any electricity," mother Ghanieh replies.

There are no more than five-or-so hours of electricity a day here in Beirut for those who don't have a generator.

Bahaa, a father, is trying to hold his family and himself together. As he talks, he is welling up.

"The landlord told me 'by tomorrow afternoon I don't want to see you in the house!'" Bahaa says.

"And how much does he want from you?" Hayat asks.

"350,000." That's about £180.

The children look okay and seem oblivious to their sobbing parents. But their health isn't good.

One has epilepsy and needs an MRI; another is diabetic. If Bahaa had any money it would be for their medicine before the rent.

"The MRI is going to cost 120,000 lira (£60) and the EAG is going to cost 425,000 lira (£220)," Bahaa says.

"And the rent for the flat. And the kids are going without school. What more can I tell you?" his wife adds.

"So what's the solution for move into the new flat? You've got to sell..." Hayat asks, interrupted.

"The fridge," Ghanieh says.

It is a snapshot of a crisis that's bringing families across this country to their knees.

Across town, in a hospital that is modern and looks well-equipped, Dr George Ghanen is trying to juggle a shortage of funding and supplies.

This crisis is hitting every sector of society and every class of citizen.

"The hospitals cannot afford, because of this cashflow problem, cannot afford anymore to treat their patient.

"It means that the patient can be started on some chemotherapy or some kind of therapy a few weeks ago and now he can not anymore receive this medication in this hospital."

This week the new government of technocrats is will begin the "painful" reforms they hope will bring the economy back on track.

"Honestly, do you have faith in the new government?" I ask Dr Ghanen.

"Unfortunately no," he says. "Because we didn't see any positive signal till now. How we tackle all these problems..? It was reactive not active. It was retrospective, not prospective. And this is a problem.

"We need certainly more seriousness and more knowledge to treat this."