Lebanon’s brain drain “occurring at an alarming speed,” said WHO director-general

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Photo: AP Photo / Bilal Hussein)

Lebanon’s multi-pronged crisis has triggered a brain drain “occurring at alarming speed” and shortages of supplies that have forced hospitals to operate at 50 percent capacity, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General on Sunday.

“A brain drain is occurring at an alarming speed,” reads his joint statement with Dr. Ahmed Al Mandhari, Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Almost 40 percent of skilled medical doctors and almost 30 percent of registered nurses have already left the country, either permanently or temporarily.”

Ghebreyesus visited Lebanon recently, where he witnessed the first hand “dire” situation. Lebanon previously held a reputation for being a Middle Eastern medical center, but now faces increased problems in the health sector as doctors, nurses, and medical staff shift to overseas.

“Just today, we were told that two open-heart surgeries were cancelled because of limited fuel at the facility where they were planned to take place,” he said. “Basic and life-saving medicines are in short supply, with restrictions in foreign currency severely limiting importation of medicines and medical goods.”

He added that the country of nearly six million, including a population of nearly a million Syrian refugees, is in urgent need of emergency and development support.

For months now, hospitals have been warning that a shortage of staff would exacerbate the crisis already ravaging the medical sector. Pharmacy shelves have mostly lay bare, as pharmaceutical businesses are incapable of bringing in their medications to sell to customers.

This is due to the fact that the Central Bank has suspended international payments to importers in light of the depletion of the mandatory foreign currency reserves and the lira’s freefall against the dollar.

Businesses that purchase medicines abroad and then sell them locally have come up in response to the recent crisis.

“The challenges before us are immense and threaten the many significant health gains that Lebanon had made over the last decades,” reads the statement.

Ghebreysus added that the Lebanese people are not only struggling with the financial and political crises, but also with the impact of the port explosion and the coronavirus pandemic.

The August 4 explosion of 2020 decimated large neighborhoods in Beirut, in addition to killing hundreds and wounding thousands more.

On Friday, he visited a rebuilt WHO warehouse in Karantina, an area of Beirut devastated by the port blast last year. It is used to store drugs and various other medical supplies, and was recently rebuilt using donor assistance.

“This is heavy. This is very heavy,” he said in a press conference. “I don’t know if there is any country in such a situation, which is really dire.”

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Lynn is a Beirut-based journalist. She is a reporter and editor for Beirut Today, actively contributing since 2018 through articles on politics, economics, lifestyle, fashion, and more.