Desperate business owners and aloof officials: Welcome to the Lebanese Health Ministry

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Minister of Health Wael Abu Faour. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

Published Friday, November 21, 2014

When Public Health Minister Wael Abu Faour talks about a health state of emergency, citizens assume that the Ministry of Health has turned into a beehive always on the alert to address the food disaster “dug up” by Abu Faour. With these files, the latter has disturbed the peace, calm, and tranquility previously enjoyed by many employees at the Ministry of Health, or perhaps this is how things should be.

But the reality is different. Everybody has remained in a state of “calm,” except for those at the Health Protection Directorate on the 7th floor and the minister's office on the 8th floor. They were on alert yesterday. When we talk about the Health Protection Directorate, we mean a single person. It is Dr. George Saad, the department’s director, who today bears the burden of all the cases related to spoiled food.

Walking around the ministry is quite "exciting" these days as business owners are scrambling to fix or inquire about their situation. As for the employees, most are not involved in the issue and do not know any details other than what they hear in the media. It appears as if the spoiled food issue is limited to two floors at the ministry: the 7th and 8th.

But, despite all of this, most employees have become "experts" in food safety, and this new "talent" is further enhanced by the questions asked by business owners about standards, laboratories, and reports. What is remarkable is that everybody has an answer. They talk about methods to transfer the samples, and the temperature inside refrigerators which is required to range between two and five degrees. Some confidently explain about the bacteria present in water, and the situation becomes more absurd when the affected respond to the input with approval. Today, to be an employee at the Ministry of Health means that you are an expert on spoiled food.

Business owners can be seen complaining to the employees about a health inspector who transferred a sample without placing it in a refrigerator, and someone talking about an inspector who placed the sample in a box of halawa. The employees respond by saying, “File a complaint, many have made the same claim."

All these conversations take place before the business owners reach the office of the person in charge of handling their situation. [Business owners] spontaneously head to the 8th floor, where the minister's office is located, from which they are transferred to the 7th floor, where the Health Protection Directorate is located.

This floor “has been busy since the morning," says an employee. In reality, the only “busy” [place on the floor] is the corridor that leads to the director's office, at the end of which is a small room where business owners wait their turn. They do not know what needs to be done and there is no one outside the office to explain the procedures. They wonder, "Which papers should we provide? What is the offense that we have committed?”

One of them came after hearing his name on TV and does not know any details. A man in his forties sits waiting for his turn. When asked about his offense, he says that he hasn’t committed any, but that employees from the Ministry of Health came [to his restaurant] a month ago and took samples of chicken, so he came over to know the results to avoid having his name publicized and a scandal.

Some came to inquire about the [names of] water companies listed by the minister. An employer asks them to “return on Monday” since "the samples have not arrived yet.”

There is also the owner of a sweets shop whose name was mentioned by Abu Faour during an episode of [the weekly talk show] “Kalam al-Nas.” He enters Dr. Saad’s office, where papers and files are piled up. His file is not ready yet because the employee assisting Saad did not attend to it, as if the situation at the ministry was normal and nothing extraordinary was happening. Not all the reports have been sorted, and thus the institutions whose names were mentioned this week will have to wait until Monday to follow up with the ministry.

At Saad’s office, each food establishment is informed about the tests and bacteria found [on their premises], and what should be done to rectify the situation. When the establishment takes the necessary measures, it is expected to file a request for re-examination at the ministry.

Many establishments have filed re-examination requests, which is evident from the number of applications at Saad’s desk. The common question asked by business owners to Saad is, "Will you announce in the media that our cases have been rectified?" They say that they have suffered huge losses and are in dire need to "enhance" their image through the health minister himself.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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