Over half of Lebanon 'trapped in poverty' even before blast: UN

AFP , Wednesday 19 Aug 2020

People on a scooter drive by damaged traditional Lebanese house, following a massive explosion at the port area, in Beirut, Lebanon, August 14, 2020. Picture taken August 14, 2020. REUTERS

Lebanon's economic crisis had already plunged more than half of its people into poverty even before this month's cataclysmic explosion at Beirut's port, a United Nations agency said Wednesday.

"Estimates reveal that more than 55 percent of the country's population is now trapped in poverty and struggling for bare necessities," the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) said, citing data for May 2020.

Extreme poverty had shot up to an estimated 23 percent of the population, it said.

Lebanon's economic and political crisis deepened when on August 4 a massive blast at the Beirut port killed 181 people, wounded thousands and ravaged huge areas of the capital.

The disaster came on the heels of the country's worst financial crunch in decades, which had already seen tens of thousands lose their jobs or much of their income, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic hit.

Official estimates had last put Lebanon's poverty rate at 45 percent.

Lebanon's middle class has shrunk from 57 percent of the population in 2019 to less than 40 percent this year, the UN agency added, warning of an accelerating exodus of Lebanese citizens.

"The real challenge facing Lebanon is that this group, which represents the bulk of the country's human capital, may shun the uncertain economic opportunities in Lebanon and seek to emigrate," it said.

In past months, middle-class Lebanese frustrated with a plummeting local currency, banks trapping their dollar savings, and deteriorating public services have increasingly decided to seek better lives abroad.

In a country which has long had one of the most unequal wealth distributions in the region, the group of people deemed affluent has shrunk from 15 to five percent of the population, ESCWA said.

The economic crisis has sparked widespread popular anger against a ruling class deemed inept and corrupt by many, and protesters have clashed again with security forces since the explosion disaster.

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