As poverty deepens, Lebanon protesters step in to help

Lebanese protesters and volunteers with carts of donation food in Sidon. (AFP)
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Updated 27 December 2019

As poverty deepens, Lebanon protesters step in to help

  • World Bank warned that poverty rates may increase to include half the population
  • Some charity kitchens serve 100 people a day

SIDON, Lebanon: With volunteer kitchens, makeshift clinics and donation centers, Lebanon’s protesters are helping their compatriots survive the worst economic crisis since the civil war by offering services many can no longer afford.
“Our goal is to create a state of social solidary among all segments of society,” said Wael Kasab, a volunteer at an open-air kitchen in the southern city of Sidon.
Across the country, protest encampments are bustling with volunteers trying to fill in for an absent state and cash-strapped charities that have closed their doors or reduced their activities in recent months due to deteriorating economic conditions.
Their efforts come amid warnings by the World Bank of an impending recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.
In Sidon’s main protest camp, volunteers scoop rice and stew onto plastic plates.
They register names of people in need of medical care to refer them to a clinic for free treatment.
Under a plastic tent, Zeinab Najem arranges clothes on a metal rack as a group of women peruse a collection of thick winter jackets.

Najem said she first started the donation center with only 10 items of clothing, but now her tent “looks like a store.”
“There are many people in need,” she told AFP.
A few meters away from Sidon’s protest camp, charity groups have set up a kitchen that serves free meals to around 100 people per day.
Sitting at a plastic table in the restaurant, Abu Ahmad eyes a tin tray filled with stuffed courgettes, salad and rice.
“I cannot afford to buy my own food,” said the 83-year-old. “I will be full today... but I’m scared of the coming days.”
Lebanon, rocked by two months of anti-government protests and a political deadlock, faces its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
A liquidity crunch has pushed Lebanese banks to impose capital controls on US dollar accounts, capping withdrawals at around $1,000 a month.
As a result, the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar has dropped by around 30 percent on the unofficial market, leading prices to rise.
The faltering economy has also pushed many companies into bankruptcy, while others have laid off staff and slashed salaries.
In the northern city of Tripoli, where more than 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, the effects of the crisis are stark.
The volunteer kitchen in the main protest camp there serves around 2,500 meals a day to long queues of hungry people flocking from all corners of the country’s second city.
Stores near the encampment are empty of clients, while shop owners sit idly outside.
To help small businesses survive the crisis, a group of volunteers collected around $4,500 (based on the official exchange rate) in donations.
They used the money to buy 130 food baskets consisting of rice, sugar, lentils, flour and oil, said Sara Al-Sharif, who started the project.
The food was purchased from around 30 stores in Tripoli’s poorest district to help boost business, she said.
Had it not been for that initiative, grocery store owner Damal Saqr, 50, said he would have closed shop.
“I was on the verge of closing down... because of inflation and the (de facto) devaluation of the Lebanese pound.”
He said that his daily earnings do not exceed $12, barely enough to cover the $500 he needs every month to cover rent for his home and store.
“I can’t afford to buy goods for the store anymore,” he said.
In Beirut’s main protest camp, volunteers dressed in neon-yellow vests pack the back of a truck with piles of donated food.
Near the main central bank building in the capital, cardboard boxes and rubbish bags filled with donations line the sidewalk.
Protesters there chant against the ruling class as they distribute clothes, blankets and mattresses to the needy.
“It is our national duty to mobilize and help each other,” said Sarah Assi, a volunteer.
“We have no other solution.”


INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

Updated 42 min 23 sec ago

INTERVIEW: Humanity is not handling coronavirus pandemic very well, says health care investment chief Helmut Schuehsler

  • Head of TVM Capital on the challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, of the COVID-19 crisis

Helmut Schuehsler has had what you might call a pretty challenging time of late — and it is by no means over.

He runs the health-care investment firm TVM Capital Healthcare from Dubai, at a time when the reputation of the medical business is being called into question due to the scandal over NMC Healthcare. The UAE’s biggest provider has gone bust with more than $4 billion in unaccounted debt.

Schuehsler operates in the private equity investment sphere, which itself is facing bigger issues than ever before, especially in health care and more so in Dubai, after the 2018 collapse of Abraaj Group, once the private equity flagship in emerging markets.

And there is the small issue of the most significant health challenge humanity has faced in over a century — the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the economic fundamentals of the medical industry beyond recognition in the space of a few months.

“Things are coming apart,” Schuehsler told Arab News on a Zoom call from his house on the Palm, Jumeirah, where he has been self-isolating for the past three months, apart from a couple of visits to the doctor.

He was referring to the global medical infrastructure and specifically to the problems with the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than the TVM business, for which he still sees big opportunities in South East Asia and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

As a professional investor with more than 30 years’ experience in health care, he holds firm views on the way the international community has responded to the pandemic crisis.

“Humanity is not handling this very well. We should have had a strengthening of the WHO. It is irrational to destroy international cooperation in the face of an international challenge. We’re doing things in a very myopic way,” he said.

He uses the term “titration” to describe the policy response of lockdown followed by reopening and, sometimes, reimposition of curfews and travel bans. Titration is a chemical process in which two compounds are mixed together in varying quantities until they neutralize each other.

“It is a case of titrating openness against social distancing. In the beginning, it was all about not overwhelming the capacity of intensive care units to ensure people had access to beds. Now, we are managing better. The public and private sector have made room for that. The first phase of the response — providing critical health care and devices — is coming together,” Schuehsler said.

“Now you’ll see a gradual reopening and closing, again and again. The danger of an exponential growth in infection rates does not go away. If people stop social distancing and we have demonstrations and concerts with thousands of people, it will go exponential tomorrow,” he explained.

He sees some cause for optimism in the work of the pharmaceutical industry — in which TVM has been a big investor over decades — to first develop effective therapeutics and, finally, a vaccine.


BIO

BORN: Vienna, 1959

EDUCATION: PhD in social and economic sciences, business administration, Vienna University of Economic and Business

CAREER

  • Investment manager, Horizonte Venture Management, Vienna
  • Managing partner, TVM Capital, Munich, Germany

  • Chairman and CEO, TVM Capital Healthcare, Dubai


“I think that by the end of this year there will be between two and five drugs that will gain emergency approvals for marketing in Western Europe. That does not mean they will be available worldwide, but availability will be just around the corner, depending on manufacturing times and how long it takes to set up distribution systems. These will prevent people from becoming so sick that they have to go to hospital,” he said.

On the possibility of a vaccine, Schuehsler believes there could be something available by the end of next year. He does not like talk of a “silver bullet” to take out the virus, however, partly due to the long development and processes of testing and approval necessary for vaccines, and partly because of a growing sentiment worldwide against vaccines.

“It’s only a silver bullet if people are actually using it, and we all know there is a growing resistance movement against vaccines, which is unfounded and which endangers people, especially children. If we want to see our children dying again from polio or measles or chicken pox, we should stop vaccinating them,” he said.

The overall response by regional authorities in UAE and Saudi Arabia has been “OK,” he said, especially considering the distraction caused by the volatility in global oil markets.

“The confluence of those two elements — oil and the virus — has caused a difficult situation for governments. They have to spend a tremendous amount in terms of getting their pandemic response up and running,” he said.

Schuehsler was a pioneer of the biotech investment business in Germany, with a network of investors in Europe and the US, before looking at the growing health-care market in the Middle East in 2009.

Now, TVM is also expanding in South East Asia, a region Schuehsler sees as having great potential in the post-pandemic world.

The pandemic will change the way he does business. In the UAE, with its sizeable expatriate populations, some medical services will change as people leave; others have already gone through a period of contraction during the most intense phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fertility treatment, for example, via the Bourn Hall clinic in Dubai, saw a sharp decline in business in April, Schuehsler said, though that has recovered “a bit” last month.

About four years ago, he began to look at Saudi Arabia, the biggest health market in the Middle East. The growth there has been patient and deliberate.

“Saudi Arabia is a much larger market, with different economics and setups, but we consider it to be a very attractive area. The country is the focus point of the Middle East.

“You need to believe certain things when it comes to Saudi Arabia. For example, that the Vision 2030, the opening up and diversification of the economy, will still happen even despite the COVID-19 and oil crises. You have to believe that they will stay the course and that things have been simply delayed and not indefinitely postponed. But we are making that assumption,” he added.

TVM does not invest in hospital chains, but rather in more specialist medical businesses: Long-term acute care, home care and disease management, ventilated care, fertility and reproductive treatment, and the manufacture of medical devices via an Egyptian subsidiary.

Schuehsler has expanded from the UAE to the Kingdom via the Manzil Healthcare Services brand in Riyadh and the Cambridge Medical business in Dhahran. The medical devices business recently signed a partnership deal with the well-known Olayan Group to expand distribution in the Kingdom.

He believes there are still opportunities to invest despite the crisis but warns that the investment outlook has changed.

“Deal making is less clear to me. For an investor, this is not a particularly great time because none of us can predict the future. If you look at a company that has lost half its business and you think you can do great deal, then maybe,” he said.

Timing of investment decisions takes on critical importance, he added.

There is also potential in introducing investors from the US and Germany to Saudi partners. 

“There are a lot of German companies that have good connections in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis appreciate German technology and products. There have been many contacts made with the Saudi government and health-care industry. We can help investors from Germany because we have excellent relationships in the Kingdom,” he said.

During his career, Schuehsler has raised more than $1 billion in committed capital from global investors, overseen 120 investments in the health industry, and been involved in more than 80 major transactions over the years, including the lucrative sale of his ProVita International business to NMC in 2015.

He understands the concerns of investors, employees and patients in the health business and how to avoid the pitfalls that have bedeviled health care and private equity recently in the Middle East.

“TVM has all the transparency and governance you could want. We run our business in the Middle East in the exactly same way we would have run it if we’d been in Boston or Munich,” he said.

“I think people look at private equity and health care with suspicion because so many bad things have happened. We get caught in this, but we are the most internationally minded player in the way we build partnerships, the way we compensate people, the way we run our board meetings in portfolio companies.

“That’s what I’m trying to put in place: Openness, transparency and compliance in the markets we invest in. That’s our contribution to broader society,” he added.