Lebanon’s brain drain: Doctors, nurses, engineers leaving amid crisis

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 22 (UPI) — Lebanon, which is witnessing the collapse of one professional sector after another due to an unprecedented economic crisis, is losing its highly skilled workforce, with an increasing number of doctors, nurses and engineers leaving out of despair and uncertainty.

The brain drain has grown over the past months at a time of changing dynamics in the embattled region and accelerated normalization between Israel and some Arab states that might greatly impact the tiny country.

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Such fears have been fueled by the fact that some top companies have also started to relocate abroad.

The World Bank’s recent warning against Lebanon’s “dangerous depletion of resources, including human capital,” reflected a painful reality that emigration was becoming an “increasingly desperate option” for many professionals.

Emigration is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon, which has witnessed in modern times many such waves, provoked by famine as in the First World War, and wars and economic crises since the 1975-90 civil war.

But the new economic crisis, apathy and inaction of the corrupt ruling political class and the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have plunged the population into deep depression.

The Aug. 4 explosion at the Beirut port, caused by the ignition of a large depository of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in a warehouse since 2014, was a turning point. With more than 200 people killed, 6,500 wounded, 300,000 turned homeless and 200,000 homes destroyed, fear for family safety and the future is an additional factor fueling desire to leave the country at any cost.

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Fadlo Khuri, president of the prestigious American University of Beirut , said that after the port explosion, the brain drain accelerated dramatically, especially in the medical and business sectors.

“They are sacrificing their professional careers to some degree for financial security and safety,” Khouri told UPI. “They are leaving because of a combination of despair in the country’s future, the lack of faith that the country and its key institutions can survive and the fear for their families’ future.”

Some 120 AUB physicians and professors, representing nearly 12 percent of a total 1,220 faculty members, have left, mostly because of the country’s deteriorating conditions.

“About 60 or so have either retired or resigned, and another 60 have left on leave without pay and some 20 will leave without pay in the next year,” Khouri said. “We are losing some very valuable people for community practice positions in the United States and Europe or to some leadership positions in the Gulf countries.”

However, he emphasized that “the cream of the crop is staying” because of their commitment to AUB, one of the leading higher education institutions in the region, and some retention measures that include pension funds, educational benefits and the payment of the first $ 20,000 of their salary in U.S. dollars per year abroad.

However, most other doctors in the country are not that lucky.

Dr. Charaf Abou Charaf, president of the Lebanese Order of Physicians, said at least 500 of 15,000 registered doctors have left the country this year, taking jobs in Europe, the United States and Persian Gulf nations.

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Abou Charaf said the most painful event was the port explosion, which destroyed four university hospitals and 300 to 400 clinics, leaving many physicians jobless.

“Those are highly skilled and specialized doctors who studied in Europe and the U.S. and have at some point returned to Lebanon, where they were practicing and teaching. Suddenly, they found themselves without jobs, but they were easily recruited abroad,” he told UPI. “It is not easy to replace them. It is not about numbers, but specialties and quality.”

Abou Charaf can easily leave and find a good position abroad but he is one of the handful of pediatric cardiologists in the country, two of whom have emigrated. He decided to stay to also help improve the conditions for the remaining physicians who are struggling to make ends meet.

With their savings stuck in the banks, the national currency having lost 80 percent of its value and inflation exceeding 100 percent in the past year, raising doctors’ official consultation fees from 75,000 Lebanese pounds (which was worth $ 50) to 100,000 LL or even 200,000 LL (now worth $ 10 and $ 25) is barely enough to keep them.

Nurses are in an even worse situation. So far, 400 to 500 out of a total of 16,800 registered nurses have emigrated in an accelerated pace since the October Revolution in 2019.

“It has become a dangerous trend because those who are leaving, mostly to Europe, the U.S., Canada and the Gulf countries, where the demands are high for such specialty, are among the 49% of nurses who have university degrees and years of experience,” Dr. Myrna Doumit, president of Order of Nurses in Lebanon, told UPI. “They are getting good offers and being granted the nationality… They have no good reason to stay and this is scary.”

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Despite that they were on the front line in the fight against COVID-19, some lost their jobs, while others were being paid half or a quarter salary with more workload. Doumit explained that a nurse who used to care for four patients now has 16 to18 patients to handle for a shrinking salary that is barely worth $ 150 a month.

Another badly hit sector is engineering, with many companies relocating, principally in Gulf countries, France and Germany and engineers preparing to leave the country to Europe, Africa and the Gulf countries.

Jad Tabet, president of the Order of Engineers and Architects in Beirut, explained to UPI that during the past two months, emigration has been dramatically on the rise with five to six engineers a day requesting the certificates necessary for new jobs abroad.

Tabet said the biggest driver is the number of engineering companies closing their offices or reducing operations to a minimum cost in Lebanon and relocating abroad.

“This is very dangerous. We are losing not only the engineers … but also others working in creative sectors related to the movie industry, publicity,” he told UPI. “Those who are leaving are the most cultured in the country.”

Some 72,000 engineers and architects are registered in Lebanon, half of whom work outside the country.

Many of those who are staying are restricted by the global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, finding no great opportunities abroad, or they have lost their savings, or their money is stuck in the Lebanese banks.

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But there are also those who have decided to stay and support the country and its institutions in bad times.

Bahaa Noureddine, chairman and professor of ophthalmology at AUB Medical Center, is one of them.

“I didn’t consider and I don’t think I will consider leaving unless things become unlivable, mainly because of my blind loyalty to AUB. And there are many people like me,” Noureddine told UPI.

To retain his faculty members, he has been “creating chances” for them in Dubai, and eyeing Kuwait and Qatar, where they can work for one to six weeks, get fresh money and come back.

Ironically, if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic and the global recession it has caused, Lebanon would have been losing much more of its talented and skilled people.

“Now, there are no good job opportunities. Most of those who left are going to places where they are demoted,” Noureddine said.

Lebanon still has a chance to attract back those who left, especially to the Gulf countries, and retain those who remained, according to Khouri and Abou Charaf.

“I don’t think brain drain is irreversible. I think there is hope. I think we haven’t hit the bottom…and the bottom will be even more painful than now,” Khouri said.

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