Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
Activists were enraged after video showing disposal of 20 tons of baby formula circulated on social media. (Supplied)
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Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula

Lebanon grapples with lifting subsidies on baby formula
  • The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities

BEIRUT: Lebanon has been running short of infant baby formula for months as the country has been dealing with a severe economic crisis. A video showing the disposal of 20 tons of the baby milk substitute has been circulating on social media and has only added to the public’s frustrations.
The Discriminatory Public Prosecution has commissioned the information department from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) to investigate as infant baby formula — which is supposed to be subsidized — has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.
“There is a kind of social solidarity and government policy to control prices in the time of crises in the world, however, when there is a shortage of infant formula in the Lebanese market, it is not permitted to see it destroyed in front of our very own eyes,” activist Mahmoud Fakih told Arab News.
“Why did the state not prosecute the traders who monopolized and hid this milk? It seems that people are the last thing on the mind of traders who insist on continuing to make profits in dollars.”
The infant milk formula shortage is just one part of a food security problem brought on by economic collapse and worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports for basic necessities. Staggering inflation has impeded imports and slashed purchasing power.
The video surfaced on social media after Hani Bohsali, president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products, and Drinks, said “subsidies have been lifted on infant formula for ages one to three years old.”
The Lebanese government is avoiding lifting subsidies on items, fearing the resentful reactions and leaving the matter into the hands of the Banque Du Liban (BDL), which settles for the cessation of payments to importers on the basis of a lack of funds in dollars.
In defense of the infant baby formula disposal, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) said: “It was requested to destroy these items in 2019 and 2020 in waste treatment facilities run by the CDR, in preparation for burying the waste in the sanitary landfill. This procedure is adopted for all the goods required to be damaged by their owners or by the competent official authorities.”

HIGHLIGHT

Internal Security Forces (ISF) were to investigate as baby formula has been missing from shops and pharmacies for weeks.

The company responsible for distributing food items in Lebanon said in a statement: “These expired products were withdrawn from the market three months before their expiry date in order to be disposed of and were in compliance with the protocols and expiry dates. Most of these products date back to 2018, 2019, and early 2020, and the process to obtain an agreement to destroy them required more than a year because of the total lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Bohsali pointed his finger at the BDL.
“The files of the infant formula for ages one to three years old, which is included in the subsidized items, have been withdrawn from BDL,” he said.
“The goods will be delivered to the markets at an unsubsidized rate. As for the price of milk for ages below one year old, it is subsidized, similarly to medicine, and traders cannot set its price.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun weighed in and called on the relevant agencies and departments to “strictly pursue monopolists and exploiters of the current circumstances who increase the prices and make illegal profits.”
According to his media office, Aoun added that “procedures were taken to address the fuel, medicine, medical supplies, and infant formula’s crisis.”
A joint report issued by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF in May warned that “canceling the only remaining form of social support funded by the Lebanese state will lead to a significant deterioration in the living standards of the poor and the middle class, if no comprehensive, sufficient and permanent social protection guarantees are implemented.”
In a previous statement, UNICEF warned: “the poorest families might face levels of deprivation we have not witnessed for many years.”
It is a critical time for the most vulnerable Lebanese citizens, said UNICEF Lebanon Representative Yukie Mokuo.
“If gaps are not quickly filled through strong long-term social assistance programs and at a time when most Lebanese face very difficult circumstances, those who are suffering from specific vulnerabilities will be simply left without support,” she said.
According to the video on social media, the infant baby formula disposal took place Tuesday morning. It provided even more ammunition for civil-society organizations, which held a protest march through the heart of Beirut on Tuesday afternoon.
The General Labor Union is scheduled to go on strike on Thursday to demand the formation of a new government. More labor unions continue to announce plans of joining the strike, including a syndicate of bank employees.
While waiting for a new government to rescue the country, there has been a renewed scene of cars queuing up near gas stations. Aggressive confrontations have occurred between drivers waiting in lines and desperate for gas.
Georges Fayyad, who heads the Association of Petroleum Importing Companies in Lebanon, expects the price of gasoline to increase if subsidies are completely lifted.
“Fuel-importing companies distributed millions of gasoline in the market on Monday and Tuesday, however, this is a temporary solution that will only last for 15 days,” Fayyad said.
“The decision to lift subsidies is not controlled by BDL, which clearly stated that it does not have any money. The decision should be made by the government.”


Some officials saw risk of Beirut blast but failed to act – human rights group

Some officials saw risk of Beirut blast but failed to act – human rights group
Updated 03 August 2021

Some officials saw risk of Beirut blast but failed to act – human rights group

Some officials saw risk of Beirut blast but failed to act – human rights group
  • The explosion killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed swathes of Lebanon’s capital
  • HRW based its report on official documents it reviewed and on multiple interviews with top officials

BEIRUT: A report released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday concluded there was strong evidence to suggest some Lebanese officials knew about and tacitly accepted the lethal risks posed by ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut port before the fatal blast there on Aug. 4 last year.
The explosion, caused by the chemicals stored unsafely at the port for years, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed swathes of Lebanon’s capital.
The report by the international rights watchdog contained over 700 pages of findings and documents. Its investigation also concluded there was evidence that multiple Lebanese authorities were criminally negligent under Lebanese law.
HRW based its report on official documents it reviewed and on multiple interviews with top officials including the president, the caretaker prime minister and the head of the country’s state security.
The investigation trailed events from 2014 onwards after the shipment was brought to Beirut port and tracked repeated warnings of danger to various official bodies.
“Evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring,” the report said.
It called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to mandate an investigation into the blast and on foreign governments to impose human rights and corruption sanctions on officials.
A Lebanese investigation into the blast, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, has stalled. Politicians and senior security officials are yet to be questioned and requests to lift their immunity have been hindered.
The HRW report said President Michel Aoun, caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, the director general of state security Tony Saliba and other former ministers wanted for questioning by judge Bitar, had failed to take action to protect the general public despite having been informed of the risks.
Reuters sought comment on the report’s findings from Aoun, Diab and Saliba. The presidential palace offered no comment. There was no immediate response from Diab and Saliba.
Aoun said on Friday he was ready to testify and that no one was above the law.
A document seen by Reuters that was sent just over two weeks before the blast showed the president and prime minister were warned about the security risk posed by the chemicals stored at the port and that they could destroy the capital.


Iran supreme leader endorses hard-line protégé as president

Iran supreme leader endorses hard-line protégé as president
Updated 03 August 2021

Iran supreme leader endorses hard-line protégé as president

Iran supreme leader endorses hard-line protégé as president
  • New Iran president Ebrahim Raisi: Government would try to improve living conditions which have suffered under the sanctions

TEHRAN, Iran: Iran’s supreme leader officially endorsed his hard-line protégé as the nation’s next president on Tuesday, just two days ahead of the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi. The new president’s ascension comes at a sensitive time for Iran and the wider Middle East.
Iran is reeling from crushing US sanctions that have devastated the economy, led to the crash of the Iranian riyal and hit ordinary Iranians hard.
In his speech, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised Raisi, a former judiciary chief, to “empower the country’s poor people and improve the national currency.”
Doubts about an imminent return to Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, have become a dark cloud dangling over the incoming hard-line administration.
The collapse of the nuclear agreement after former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord three years ago doomed the relatively moderate administration of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who has seen his popularity plummet. Rouhani sat stone-faced throughout the endorsement ceremony.
Last week, Khamenei delivered a harsh rebuke of the West, blaming the delay of the nuclear deal’s revival on America’s “stubborn” negotiating stance. While repeating his usual anti-West rhetoric on Tuesday about Iran’s “enemies” seeking to sway public opinion, Khamenei struck a milder tone during the endorsement. He focused on Iran’s mounting domestic issues, praising Raisi’s anti-corruption campaign and asking him to encourage local production.
“The nation needs competent, effective and brave management,” Khamenei said.
Without commenting on the stalled nuclear negotiations in Vienna, Raisi stressed he would “pursue the removal of oppressive sanctions” in order to salvage the crippled economy.
“We will not (tie) the people’s dining tables and the economy to the will of the foreigners,” he said. Raisi won a landslide victory in the June election, which saw the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history. He will take the oath of office in an inauguration ceremony Thursday before parliament.
President Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the landmark nuclear accord and lift sanctions if Iran moves back into compliance with the agreement.
But escalating tensions in the Middle East now risk complicating the diplomatic choreography. The West has blamed Iran for a drone attack last week that struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members. Iran has denied involvement in the incident, which marks the first-known fatal assault after a yearslong shadow war targeting commercial shipping in the region.


Tunisia over worst of COVID-19 wave but must speed up jabs: WHO

Tunisia over worst of COVID-19 wave but must speed up jabs: WHO
Updated 03 August 2021

Tunisia over worst of COVID-19 wave but must speed up jabs: WHO

Tunisia over worst of COVID-19 wave but must speed up jabs: WHO
  • The Delta variant was responsible for “more than 90 percent” of cases
  • The health ministry on Monday announced the start of a mobile vaccination campaign in several regions

TUNIS: Tunisia — which has seen the world’s worst Covid-19 death toll — may be over the peak of the latest wave but the government must still speed up inoculations, the WHO said on Monday.
“The epidemiological data are going in the right direction,” World Health Organization representative in Tunisia Yves Souteyrand told a press conference.
“We have the feeling that the peak of the epidemic may have passed.”
But with vaccines in short supply, overwhelmed hospitals, shortages of oxygen and the highly contagious Delta variant rampaging through the country’s 12 million population mean the risk of a health disaster remains, the WHO warned.
The Delta variant was responsible for “more than 90 percent” of cases, and the impact of family gatherings during a recent religious holiday was hard to evaluate but could set back progress made, Souteyrand said.
“The challenge is to speed up the vaccination campaign,” he said.
The country had “in 10 days received around seven million vaccine doses and will receive perhaps two or three million more” soon, he said.
The WHO has also provided 400 oxygen concentrators and four oxygen generators to Tunisia, where the government has been in crisis after President Kais Saied suspended parliament and took direct power — a move his critics said was a coup.
Since the shock move late last month, Saied has established a coronavirus crisis unit, supervised by a high-level military official, to help manage the country’s outbreak.
Souteyrand said that “relations between the WHO and the health ministry have not been affected by the political crisis.”
The health ministry on Monday announced the start of a mobile vaccination campaign in several regions.
Authorities have also announced a vaccination drive across the country on Sunday for Tunisians aged over 40.
Over the past seven days, the North African country has registered the worst official Covid-19 mortality rate in the world, with 10.64 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, an AFP tally based on officially reported data shows.
On the other hand, Tunisia shares its coronavirus data more transparently than many other countries, the WHO said.


Iraq calls on Syria to increase water releases due to shortfall

Iraq calls on Syria to increase water releases due to shortfall
Updated 03 August 2021

Iraq calls on Syria to increase water releases due to shortfall

Iraq calls on Syria to increase water releases due to shortfall
  • By increasing water releases, Syria would share the damage and losses between the two sides, Hamdani said

DUBAI: Iraq called on Syria to increase water releases to compensate for the lack of rainfall and high temperatures that have caused a shortfall in revenues, Iraq’s state media reported on Monday.

The Minister of Water Resources, Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani said he “held a closed-circuit televised meeting with the Syrian Minister of Water Resources, Tammam Raad, to review the measures taken regarding the signed accord during Al-Hamdani's visit to Syria”

Last month, both countries signed a joint agreement to exchange data related to the imports of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers “periodically and in emergency situations."
The pact also includes the creation of technical committees and the unification of positions regarding the quantities of water received at the Turkish-Syrian border. 

Syria expressed willingness to attend joint meetings with Iraq and Turkey, Hamdani said, adding that the Syrian side's agreement is a development in the field of joint cooperation in the water file.”

By increasing water releases, Syria would share the damage and losses between the two sides, Hamdani said, adding that the meeting emphasized the need to continue coordination and joint cooperation with regard to training, studies and exchange of data.

Syria will participate in the research center to be established in Iraq, according to Hamdani.


UAE makes COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students 16 years old and above to return to school

UAE makes COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students 16 years old and above to return to school
Updated 03 August 2021

UAE makes COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students 16 years old and above to return to school

UAE makes COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students 16 years old and above to return to school
  • The Gulf state has one of the world’s highest immunization rates
  • Abut 79 percent of its population with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

DUBAI: The UAE’s education ministry has advised all students 16 years old and above to receive their COVID-19 jabs before the school year reopens, as only vaccinated pupils would be allowed entry into campuses.

“The Ministry of Education encourages all individuals (aged 16 and above) to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccination is a mandatory requirement for entering educational facilities,” the ministry said in a social media post.

Dubai students are not affected by the requirement as the emirate has a separate COVID-19 policy body and private schools are regulated by its own education authority.

The ministry also asked other stakeholders in the education sector – teachers, administrative staff, support services and parents – to get themselves vaccinated against coronavirus.

Health officials on Monday allowed the emergency use of the Sinopharm vaccine for the 3 to 17 age group as part of efforts to combat the spread of the highly contagious disease.

The Gulf state has one of the world’s highest immunization rates, with 79.04 percent of its population with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while 70.69 percent are already fully vaccinated.

The total number of doses that has been administered is now at 16,810,996, for a vaccine distribution rate of 169.97 doses per 100 people.