Lebanon News

Pharmacists express alarm at attacks, say one-hour strike not enough

The closed Le Gabriel Pharmacy in Ashrafieh, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Pharmacists are expressing alarm at the wave of robberies and attacks targeting pharmacies across Lebanon, particularly those that remain open at night. Security reports cited over eight cases of theft and assault on pharmacies in the past two months.

In the latest attack, pharmacist Wissam Khatib escaped a kidnap attempt near his pharmacy in the Bekaa Valley town of Zahle late last month after he was mugged.

In a bid to pressure authorities to protect pharmacies, the Order of Pharmacists called on pharmacies to close their businesses from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, vowing to lengthen the protest if its demands were not met.

But pharmacists in Beirut seemed divided over the effectiveness of the move, as many did not adhere to the strike order.

“I will not close my pharmacy because such a move will have no effect,” said pharmacist Joumana Sinno shortly before noon.

“I say this though my pharmacy was once attacked by a man. He threw all the products displayed on the floor and cursed me because I refused to sell him a medication. He said: ‘I don’t care if you call the police,’” Sinno said, interrupted by clients at her pharmacy in the Beirut neighborhood of Barbour.

Sinno added that one ideal solution to protect pharmacies would involve adopting an alarm system, whereby a pharmacist can push a button notifying a nearby police station in the event of an attack. But Sinno said that closing pharmacies for one hour was unlikely to protect pharmacies.

Although he did not hear about the call for a strike, the owner of a nearby pharmacy said he would close his shop to support his colleagues, who have been the victims of theft.

“Our colleagues are being assaulted and I should show solidarity,” he said. “We are a very important sector that can ramp up pressure on authorities if we strike,” he added, requesting to remain anonymous.

But a pharmacist working for the Itani Pharmacy in Corniche al-Mazraa said interrupting work for one hour would not fare well for business.

“Sales are already slowing down and closing for one hour would not make a positive change. I heard about the call for strike yesterday on TV but did not take it seriously,” said the woman, who also requested to remain anonymous. She said that, in principle, authorities in Lebanon should work to protect pharmacies but that it was unlikely that this would happen.

Very few pharmacies in the Ashrafieh district heeded the call to strike. “We checked with other pharmacists in the area and they all said they are not closing, so we decided not to close,” said a pharmacist who works for Berty Pharmacy in the neighborhood.

As far as pharmacy manager Gerard is concerned, no change can come from the strike, even if pharmacies closed for 15 days. “There will still be thieves.”

Closing pharmacies across Lebanon for one day rather than only an hour would “shake Lebanon,” according to Nariman, a pharmacist in Ashrafieh. “In that case, people would have no place to buy medicine, and this would achieve the goal,” she added.

Nariman said the owner of the pharmacy she worked for did not ask her to close the pharmacy. “One hour does not make a difference.”

Antoine Badaro, who owns a pharmacy nearby, said that the state does not have enough security personnel to protect pharmacies.

“Every official has five bodyguards, many of whom serve as cooks for their families; authorities lack enough personnel,” Badaro said.

“Yesterday, they told us that we should close. Okay we were closed today and sick people [who want to buy medication] were irritated. But did this bother the thief?” Badaro asked.

Badaro added that not a single pharmacist would abide by an order to close for an entire day.

For his part, the head of the Order of Pharmacists Rabih Hassouna acknowledged that there were pharmacists who did not strike.

“After all, this was a symbolic move, some pharmacies closed and some did not,” Hassouna said.

Asked about complaints by some pharmacists that the move was ineffective and should have been better prepared, Hassouna said he respected all opinions.

“What preparation does a call for closing from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. require?” he said.

“This was a move aimed at a delivering a certain message, we have yet to start with the escalatory measures,” he said.

Hassouna refused to give details on the measures. “Let’s not jump the gun ... but I say that authorities should take measures to preserve the security of pharmacies.”

Helen, a client at a pharmacy, said some people would be severely affected if pharmacies went on strike for an entire day.

“I won’t feel it because I buy my medication every month, but what will the people in emergencies do?” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2013, on page 3.

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