COVID-19 could be an Opportunity to Heal the Middle East. Here’s Why it Won’t Be.

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As journalists and commentators have rushed to proclaim new epicentres of the global COVID-19 pandemic, few have paid sufficient attention to the extraordinary threat that the disease poses to the Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, as Paul Salem, President of the Washington-based think tank the Middle East Institute notes, ‘Unless regional states act urgently and in a coordinated fashion, this could be the worst crisis in modern Middle Eastern history’.

For a region all too familiar with the heavy humanitarian toll wrought by civil war, political violence, state repression and economic crises, such warnings suggest the unprecedented nature of the threat posed.

Though outside of Iran, the spread of coronavirus has so far been less swift in the region than in other parts of the world, given its proximity to and connectedness with current centres of the crisis in East Asia and Europe, the appearance of more cases of the virus appears inevitable.

More importantly, weak public health care infrastructure, lack of trust in governing institutions, and the existence of long-standing, dire humanitarian emergencies caused by civil conflict will invariably exacerbate both the advance of the virus and the severity of its impacts.

‘Unless regional states act urgently and in a coordinated fashion, this could be the worst crisis in modern Middle Eastern history’

The Global Health Security Index, an assessment metric compiled by researchers at John Hopkins University rates the Middle East and North Africa as amongst the world’s least prepared regions to withstand the effects of a public health crisis like coronavirus.

Though all of the region’s states look set to struggle under the weight of COVID-19, the spread of infection in war-torn states provides most cause for concern. Three active conflicts continue to rage in the region in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Of the 195 states ranked by the Global Health Security Index, all three fare particularly badly with Libya ranked 168th, Syria 188th, and Yemen 190th.

Of the 195 states ranked by the Global Health Security Index, all three fare particularly badly with Libya ranked 168th, Syria 188th, and Yemen 190th. Libya recorded its first case of the virus early this week, and while both rival governments, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, claim to be taking active steps to help prevent the disease, the mid-term public health outlook in the state is worrisome.

As senior officials in the World Health Organisation rightly note, ‘This is a health system that was close to collapse before you get the coronavirus’. Little protective equipment is available, and a severe shortage of trained medical workers exists in the country.

Further, as renewed mortar attacks on Tripoli suggest, both sides in the protracted conflict may cynically use the existence of mass dislocation and instability to further their military aims.


Some states and regional social media have blamed Qatar for the outbreak of COVID-19. /AFP

Syria and Yemen appear to be in even more precarious positions. Syria’s governing institutions and health care sector are mismanaged, and resource starved and over 85% of the country lives below the poverty line. Over 6.6 million internally displaced people live in make-shift accommodation or overcrowded camps. Refugee populations in neighbouring states will also have grave cause for concern.

Approximately 12 million refugees are spread between Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Iraq and dense population concentrations lacking access to sanitation and clean water prove hotspots for disease transmission.

Approximately 12 million refugees are spread between Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Iraq and dense population concentrations lacking access to sanitation and clean water prove hotspots for disease transmission.

In Syria’s rebel held Idlib province, the spread of disease would prove especially calamitous – 3 million civilians live in this area with few operating medical facilities and infrastructure decimated by airstrikes. Indeed, as the Idlib Health Directorate notes, only 200 Intensive Care Unit beds exist in the Governorate to serve the entire population.

Though Yemen is yet to record a case of coronavirus, the World Health Organisation’s Abd al-Nasser Bakr expects an ‘explosion in the number of cases in the country’. The United Nations already characterises the humanitarian situation in Yemen as the worst in the world and in a population of 30 million, 18 million people are considered severely vulnerable and lacking in access to health services.

Yemen’s health infrastructure has already shown its inadequacy in dealing with known infections such as cholera and diphtheria, leaving it ill-equipped to take on a virus with no known cure or simple remedies.

Though Yemen is yet to record a case of coronavirus, the World Health Organisation’s Abd al-Nasser Bakr expects an ‘explosion in the number of cases in the country’.

Outside of those states gripped by severe humanitarian crises, certain populations will rove especially vulnerable. As cases begin to be recorded in the Palestinian occupied territories and informal accommodation in the suburbs of Cairo, health officials fear new epicentres of the virus.

Elsewhere, authorities fear the enormous economic costs wrought by the pandemic. Although the oil rich Gulf has proved best able to respond to the effects of the virus, measures to contain its spread will severely harm economic growth and employment.

Job rich sectors in tourism, hospitality and retail will suffer as foreign travellers stay home, while global oil demand has reached record lows as international economic activity grinds to a halt. States which lack hydrocarbon wealth may face even more acute financial crises as remittance payments and overseas investments dry up and local productive industries shut their doors.

A global recession would prove disastrous to a region already struggling to diversify and spur growth. Economic crisis, acute unemployment, and lack of access to basic services may yet provide opportunities for extremist groups

A global recession would prove disastrous to a region already struggling to diversify and spur growth. Economic crisis, acute unemployment, and lack of access to basic services may yet provide opportunities for extremist groups who have shown an unfortunate penchant for capitalising on times of instability and deprivation.

As states move to contain the virus, cynical political leaders may take the opportunity to further erode civil liberties and enhance their own emergency powers. A tendency to fabricate and lie away the crisis, as has already been seen in Iran and Egypt, threatens both to augment coronaviruses spread and reduce trust in already failing institutions. 

Mr Salem argues that the crisis might ‘remind us of our common humanity’ and prove ‘a historic spur to regional cooperation and to putting the interests of the region’s populations- particularly the most vulnerable of them- first’.

Hopeful commentators argue that shared adversity may force regional rivals to the negotiating table to end conflicts and provide palliative support for struggling communities. Yet the early warning signs suggest that such optimism is misplaced.

Hopeful commentators argue that shared adversity may force regional rivals to the negotiating table to end conflicts and provide palliative support for struggling communities. Yet the early warning signs suggest that such optimism is misplaced. Increased sectarian tensions have emerged in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as Shi’a pilgrims are blamed for the spread of the virus from Iran.

The hashtag ‘QatarIsCorona’ continues to trend on Twitter and the Saudi Council of Ministers, chaired by King Salman declares that ‘Iran bears direct responsibility for the outbreak of the corona infection’.

The most vulnerable communities in the region suffer as international agencies and foreign governments retrench aid commitments in the face of their own domestic struggles. Political leaders use the crisis to reward and aid allies while punishing opponents and the unenfranchised.

The hashtag ‘QatarIsCorona’ continues to trend on Twitter and the Saudi Council of Ministers, chaired by King Salman declares that ‘Iran bears direct responsibility for the outbreak of the corona infection’.

Of the 100,000 COVID-19 kits brought into Israel, only 200 have been provided to health authorities in Gaza, where 2 million people are equipped with no more than 50 ventilators and less than 3000 hospital beds.

Though all should share in Mr Salem’s hopes that the region may prove capable of facing perhaps its greatest crisis, without an unprecedented degree of international interest, regional cooperation, and human compassion, COVID-19 may bring untold suffering to countries all too familiar with humanitarian catastrophe.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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