Cash-strapped Lebanese banks asked to prioritize FX for coronavirus supplies - statement

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s central bank governor has asked the country’s cash-strapped banks to prioritize foreign currency for the import of medical supplies needed to combat coronavirus, according to a central bank statement on Friday.

Lebanon is grappling with an acute hard currency crunch that has led commercial banks to impose strict controls on the withdrawal and transfer of dollars abroad, restrictions that have hit imports even for critical goods.

Health officials have warned that Lebanon’s deep financial crisis raises serious questions about its ability to contain a coronavirus outbreak if cases rapidly increase, amid looming shortages for even basic essentials like masks and gloves.

“The governor of the central bank of Lebanon Riad Salameh asked that all Lebanese banks give priority to transfers for the purchase of medical supplies and equipment for combating coronavirus,” the statement said.

Lebanon has so far recorded 77 cases of coronavirus and three deaths.

The government on Wednesday announced heightened countermeasures including a ban on flights from virus-hit countries and the closure of restaurants, malls and many public venues.

Lebanon’s banks said they will shut on Saturday in order to take steps to sanitize branches.

Reporting by Eric Knecht and Tom Arnold; Editing by Kevin Liffey