Saturday, July 10, 2021

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: An army on a vegetarian diet offering tourists helicopter rides

Since leaving Lebanon I have been following developments there with bated breath.

The continuing economic and fiscal meltdown and the ensuing riots I was expecting, but reading about the Lebanese Army putting its personnel on a vegetarian diet because of escalating meat prices I was not.

Meat-eating has long been associated with the military way of life. Musketeers in the early 19th  century were allocated one pound of bread and one pound of meat daily. For many, this was such a rich diet that they made a few bob on the side selling some of the meat – there were chronic shortages at the time. And of course the term ‘Beefeaters’ is associated with the royal guard. To many of us, a vegetarian army strikes the same cord as an illiterate teaching force.

Give them credit for innovation, though – for USD150 they’ll give you a  15-min spin in an army chopper. I can just imagine a chopper crew going to the canteen one night: Hey, we made 600 bucks today, that should be worth a sausage or a meat patty.

Sausages and meat patties certainly aren’t on the menu for the 55% of the population who are on or below the poverty line. Nor are essential medicines. People are dying because of a lack of medications. Even if you have the money to pay for them, many drugs are simply not there to buy. Hospitals have cut back on surgery because anaesthetics are in short supply. A child on oxygen died because there was no electricity to operate the machine delivering the gas – fuel for the generators had run out.

It tore a piece out of my heart to see a video report showing people, both retirees and those still working – including professionals - queuing up at a soup kitchen run by an NGO. One of the secretaries at the university I worked at until last month told me about her husband having just retired and being paid out his pension funds in Liras that had lost 90% of their value. All they now had was her salary of one and a half million a month – 2 years ago that was USD1000, now it’s 100 and likely to drop more. And she’s well off compared with people who do jobs like pumping gas and collecting garbage who now have to make do on around 30 dollars a month.

Speaking of gas, the news has it that many taxis are now off the road. Taxis are, or were, used by many people as a form of public transport. Beirut’s Mercedes-Benz cabs, some going back half a century and more – I once had the pleasure of being driven in a 1956 Merc – are legendary, although most have since been replaced by more recent vehicles. Old or young, a car needs fuel to move and there us a shortage. Besides, many people can’t or won’t pay the fares the rise in which reflect the decline of the currency and the lifting of the fuel subsidy. One cabby I engaged a couple of days before flying out told me he had four sons who were now going hungry, and I believed him – his story is hardly unique.

We – self and better half – are cooling our heels in the southern coastal city of Antalya in Turkey. Turkey operates a mixture of anti-pandemic measures. People coming in from Lebanon who have been vaccinated do not need a PCR test, for instance. That made me think. Why do people entering NZ need to undergo those 10 days of false imprisonment a.k.a. managed isolation if they have vaccination certificates? Doesn’t the NZ government trust the vaccines? We two don’t like vaccinations and have always resisted having them, but we’re pragmatists and if it were a matter of choosing between a jab and quarantine, we’d roll up our sleeves.

Letting vaccinated people off the managed isolation hook would presumably expedite matters for returnees. We have a travel agent in NZ working on our case and the best he can do is mid-October. It would have been quicker returning to NZ on a sailing ship in the late 19th century – and a lot more fun.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA BSc BEdSt PGDipLaws MAppSc PhD spent many years working at universities in PNG, Botswana and Lebanon. Feedback welcome at

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