Lebanon in crisis: Emergency numbers and suicide hotlines falter

Network operator Ogero could stop providing internet and mobile phone services nationwide as it lacks money to import diesel

Tala RamadanThomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 14 Sept 2022, 05:55 AM
Updated : 14 Sept 2022, 05:55 AM

Crushed by soaring food and fuel prices, barely any electricity, and a currency that buys less each day, people in Lebanon now risk losing access to two more essentials - their mobile phones and the internet.

When Lebanon's 140 ambulance service line - which is run by the Lebanese Red Cross and responds to 560 emergencies a day - went down last week, the charity posted alternative numbers on Twitter and Facebook.

"The problem is that not a lot of people have access to internet, and therefore it means that they will never read the post," Nabih Jabr, Under-Secretary General at the Lebanese Red Cross, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The alternative internet-based lines (VoiP) have less capacity to take calls, he said. They may also face the same risk of crashing due to shortages of fuel to power the state-owned Ogero telecoms network's transmission stations.

As Lebanon's bankrupt government struggles to run its power plants, homes often receive only an hour of electricity a day. Those who can afford it buy diesel to run their own generators.

"If both regular lines and VoiP calls fail, then clearly people would not be able to call for an ambulance. And that could result in major delays to get patients to hospitals or in transporting them unsafely in civilian cars," Jabr said.

"Basically, people may end up losing their lives if communications are lost."

Telecoms minister Johnny Corm warned earlier this month that Ogero would stop providing services nationwide - leaving Lebanon with no phone or internet services - unless it received money from the government to import diesel.

This would make it impossible for Lebanon's 6 million people to communicate, costing jobs and possibly lives, at a time of unprecedented hardship.

Since 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, food prices have gone up more than 11-fold, and more than 80% of the population have fallen below the poverty line.

In addition, Ogero staff started an indefinite strike over salaries in August, which means that all telecoms maintenance work has been suspended.

SUICIDE HELPLINE ON HOLD

Lebanon's only suicide prevention hotline, Embrace, is also in trouble. With service disruptions from Ogero, the hotline is sometimes disconnected all day, said Mia Atwi, Embrace's president and co-founder.

"Our line is down - and more people calling the hotline aren't getting the help they need," she said, adding that calls had surged since 2020 when there was a huge explosion at Beirut port, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis.

"More people need us as they face the compounding crisis and the lack of health experts," she said, referring to the exodus of physicians and nurses seeking better opportunities abroad.

Once among the best in the Middle East, Lebanon's medical system is crumbling as hospitals and surgeries struggle to cope with departing staff on top of financial troubles and shortages.

Many Lebanese are struggling with depression and burnout, but therapy is out of reach of most as incomes shrink, according to mental health practitioners.

"It is a critical phase and we need to help as many people as we can," Atwi said, adding that more suicidal callers are asking operators to phone them back so they can talk for free.

"But now, with the constant disruptions, we can't receive calls or call people back."

Five-fold prices hikes - introduced in July to allow Ogero to import fuel - are making phone calls unaffordable for many.

A 16GB phone card now costs 220,000 LBP (about $6 on the parallel market rates), up from 40,000 (about $1 on the parallel market rates) in August.

NO INTERNET, NO WORK

Costly phone and internet services are not just hurting those who need to call an ambulance or suicide hotline. It is also making it impossible for many Lebanese to earn a living.

Rana Khalil, 24, a freelance copywriter in Beirut's suburbs, switched to hotspotting from her mobile phone to connect her laptop to the internet after July's price hike made broadband unaffordable.

"I have to allot my scraps of cash to pay for an internet service that is not only unreliable and inconsistent, but jumps wildly in price," she said, adding that the stress and high cost of data were sapping her motivation even to do any work.

"What is left of my salary can barely cover my rent. I'm afraid I will wake up one day and have the internet cut off completely. Then I would be left with no internet, no work, and eventually no shelter."

The situation is even worse for an estimated 230,000 people who rely on Lebanon's ageing 2G network, many of whom are rural residents and seniors with limited technological knowledge, according to Abed Kataya of SMEX, a digital rights group.

In May, the government announced that it planned to shut down the 2G network, which people with basic phones use to call and text as they cannot afford smartphones to connect to the faster 3G network and the internet.

It has not set a cut off date.

Mouhamad Al-Ali has worked as a trader for 16 years, delivering fresh grapes, apples and berries straight from Lebanese farmers to shops.

He fears his business will collapse when the government shuts down the 2G network.

"Without phone service, there will be no delivery requests, which means no work," said Al-Ali, 42, from his village of Deyrintar in southern Lebanon. He has applied for supermarket delivery jobs without success.

"I can't provide anything for my wife and daughter if I lose my job. I'll have to either borrow money from friends and family or resort to begging on the streets," he said.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher