Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic

Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic
A health worker awaits new patients at a coronavirus testing station in Stamford, Connecticut in the US. The virus has not only had global economic implications, but is starting to shift public and business attitudes on policy. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2020

Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic

Middle East, global attitudes reshaped by coronavirus pandemic
  • YouGov research tracks potential impact of health crisis on business, politics and public behavior in 25 countries
  • Research shows fear of infection is greater in Asia and the Middle East than in Europe and North America

DUBAI: For weeks now, the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating day-to-day life across the world, to say nothing of news headlines.

In view of the ever changing situation, global research firm YouGov has been conducting research in 25 countries to track the potential impact of the health crisis on everything from business and politics to public behavior.

As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reaches new parts of the world and governments and businesses respond differently in different countries, attitudes to the pandemic are evolving.

In the coming weeks, ongoing trackers such as YouGov will convey an idea of how the general population around the world is feeling about the crisis and how this is affecting different aspects of life.

YouGov’s COVID-19 data will examine what has changed and highlight key differences across 25 countries. The data gathered by the tracker, stretching as far back as late February, shows shifts that, in the normal course of things, might have taken decades.

The results show how populations globally are being forced to change their attitudes and behaviors as the number of countries and cities hit by infections continues to rise.

In addition, as the number of countries or territories with signs of local transmission of the virus increases every day, governments are taking ever more radical measures to limit propagation.

As of March 21, Johns Hopkins University in the US had tracked 275,500 confirmed live coronavirus cases globally — 81,300 in mainland China and 194,200 outside China.

The numbers represented a global increase of 156,100 cases in a week: On March 14 Johns Hopkins reported 75,100 live cases in China, and 81,000 outside.

Fear of contracting COVID-19

Those living in Asia and the Middle East are far more fearful of catching the disease — generally between 53 percent and 83 percent — than people in Europe and North America — generally between 27 percent and 45 percent.

YouGov data suggests that this is because the percentage of people in Asia and the Middle East who are familiar with the virus is higher than it is in Europe or the US.

Moreover, people in Europe and the US are far less likely than those living in Asia to see COVID-19 as a threat to public health in their own countries. In Italy, the worst affected area of the European outbreak, levels of public concern are much higher.

The most recent YouGov survey found almost three quarters of Italians were either very or somewhat scared of contracting the infection.

This is unsurprising given a significant portion of the country is in lockdown, and the number of deaths in the country now exceeds the number of deaths in China.

It is also worth noting that fear levels in Asia-Pacific countries have remained static or only risen relatively slowly since YouGov’s tracker launched in February.

The tracker has shown that fear of contracting COVID-19 has risen the fastest in Europe. For instance, the UK saw an increase in fear levels from 24 percent to 48 percent in between March 1 and March 20, while the jump in Germany was from 21 percent to 37 percent between March 4  and March 16.

Preventative measures

The YouGov tracker results show that COVID-19 has had a greater impact on behavior in Asia and the Middle East so far than it has in Europe and North America.

The most visible difference in global attitudes comes down to face-mask use. In almost all European countries, and the US and Canada, use of masks is below 10 percent. In most Asian countries, however, it is around half or more, and rises to as high as 86 percent in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

At between 35-39 percent, use of face masks in the Middle Eastern is below the Asian range.

As the coronavirus spreads further through the US, these attitudes may change. At the end of February, 25 percent of Americans said they were very likely to consider wearing a face mask when in crowded public spaces such as airports or on public transportation, while 27 percent said they were somewhat likely to consider doing so.

Attitudes to social distancing

Distinctions between global regions are less obvious when it comes to support for measures that national governments could take to combat the spread of infections.

Generally speaking, the most popular measures are to quarantine anyone who has come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, alongside banning and quarantining flights from China and other countries with active cases.

Public opinion in Germany in particular has registered the most notable swing in favor of banning flights from the rest of the world.

While only 29 per cent of Germans supported banning flights from countries with COVID-19 cases at the beginning of March, this figure has since risen to 50 percent.

Over the same time period, the number of Germans wanting to ban flights from China specifically has risen from 41 percent to 53 percent.

Attitudes in Indonesia are significantly different from the rest of its regional neighbors. At the time other Asian countries were seeing large numbers choosing to avoid crowded places, the figure in Indonesia barely shifted from 26 percent to 31 percent.

It has since risen to 51 percent, but this still puts Indonesia far behind their neighbors.

Impact on businesses

While many businesses are braced for the potentially devastating economic impact of coronavirus, some brands are benefiting.

Following reports of 10 confirmed coronavirus deaths in Hong Kong, residents began queueing up overnight outside pharmacies to stockpile face masks.

As a response to this, on January 31, Watsons, a Hong Kong chain, announced on its Facebook page that each of its 230 branches would supply face masks, and a quota system would be but in place for each customer to prevent stockpiling.

It also reassured customers that more would be arriving in early February. In addition to this, it pledged to donate face masks to the elderly.

Watsons’ response to the coronavirus in this time of fear and panic has boded well for its brand health scores.

Since the start of the year, YouGov BrandIndex data has shown a significant jump in their awareness and customer recommendation scores.

In the UK, as many make preparations for social distancing, perhaps unsurprisingly, BrandIndex data has shown positive results for key home comfort providers — Deliveroo, Netflix and Andrex.

Governments under pressure

According to an Economist/YouGov poll, a majority of Americans (56 percent) said the government should be spending more to protect the country against the spread of infectious diseases.

Many (41 percent) also felt US President Donald Trump was not taking the virus seriously enough.

With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government taking increasingly strict steps aimed at trying to bring COVID-19 under control, a YouGov survey for the UK’s Channel 5 News examined what Britons thought of the state response so far.

When surveyed on March 16 and 17, close to four out of 10 (38 percent) said the government was not reacting to the coronavirus outbreak sufficiently.

A similar figure believed the reaction to be about right, while 10 percent thought the government’s response was an overreaction.

Since then, the UK has announced that schools, restaurants and gyms will close and loans would be made available to businesses affected by the pandemic.

In Asia, the data suggests a huge shift in public desire for respective Asian governments to distribute free face masks. The shift took place between late February and early March — just when people in these areas were also starting in large numbers to avoid crowded public places.

Figures rose by at least 24 percent in each country, with the increase particularly rapid in Malaysia (from seven percent to 57 percent) and the Philippines (eight percent to 54 percent).


UK’s newest carrier joins fight against Daesh, stirs Russian interest

An F-35 aircraft takes off from the UK's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean Sea on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
An F-35 aircraft takes off from the UK's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean Sea on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Updated 26 min 17 sec ago

UK’s newest carrier joins fight against Daesh, stirs Russian interest

An F-35 aircraft takes off from the UK's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean Sea on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
  • HMS Queen Elizabeth, a 65,000-ton carrier, has a squadron of the cutting-edge F-35 jet and its support ships include the US destroyer The Sullivans
  • The carrier group is supporting the UK's missions to wipe out the remnants of Daesh in Iraq as the US focuses on its withdrawal from Afghanistan

EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN SEA: Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is helping to take on the “lion’s share” of operations against the Daesh (Islamic State) group in Iraq, UK naval commanders said. It has also piqued the interest of Russian warplanes, who try to keep tabs on its cutting-edge F-35 jet in a “cat-and-mouse” game with British and US pilots.
Speaking aboard the 65,000-ton carrier on its first-ever deployment, Commodore Steve Moorhouse said the UK is carrying out most of the missions to wipe out the remnants of Daesh in Iraq as the US focuses on its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“At the moment, we’re taking on the lion’s share of that operation over Iraq, which is a fantastic, say, feather in our cap. But an achievement that ‘A’, we’re trusted and ‘B’, that we’re able to do that,” Moorhouse told reporters Sunday.
It’s the first time that a UK aircraft carrier is supporting live military operations on the ground in over two decades, projecting British military power on a global scale. Moorhouse said the carrier offers the UK flexibility in how to conduct military operations abroad and “keeps those that wish to cause us harm ... on their toes.”
He said the eastern Mediterranean has become more “congested and contested” over the last decade in light of the heavier Russian military presence in Syria, which is resulting in regular encounters with Russian ships and warplanes.

An F-35 aircraft takes off from the UK's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean Sea on June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

“We’re rubbing up against Russian activity, not in a you know, in a dangerous or aggressive manner, but you’ve just got other people out here playing in what is a fixed piece of water and airspace,” said Moorhouse, adding that a Russian warship has come within 10 kilometers (16 miles) of the carrier.
The commodore insisted that Russian, British and US pilots have a “healthy respect for one another” and their conduct has been “absolutely professional” since the aircraft carrier started anti-IS operations on June 18.
“But there is a reality when you buy yourself a fifth-generation aircraft carrier and you take it around the world ... people are interested in it,” he added.
Captain James Blackmore, who commands the eight British F-35 jets and the 10 helicopters aboard the carrier, said UK and Russian pilots have come within “visual distance” of each other.
“It’s that cat-and-mouse posturing, it’s what we expect in this region of world. And as you can imagine, it’s the first time for F-35s into the eastern Mediterranean,” said Blackmore. “So, of course Russia wants to look at what they’re like, they want to look at what our carriers are like.”
The state-of-the art F-35, armed with air-to-air missiles and laser-guided bombs, is being used over Iraq to look for other aircraft or unmanned drones, support troops on the ground as well as to carry out surveillance with its sophisticated sensor and radar systems.
“It’s a fifth-generation aircraft with a hugely, hugely capable radar and sensor suite, and that’s what it brings. So it’s the eyes and ears that it’s offering out there,” said Moorhouse.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth and its support ships, which include the US destroyer The Sullivans, will remain in the eastern Mediterranean for two to three weeks before moving through the Suez Canal to continue with a 7 1/2 -month deployment to India, South Korea and Japan.
The carrier also has 10 US F-35 jets from the Marine Corps’ Fighter Attack Squadron 211 aboard that carry out operations under British command.


Germany gets 1st military rabbi in over a century

Germany gets 1st military rabbi in over a century
Zsolt Balla, State Rabbi of Saxony, stands in the synagogue in Leipzig, Germany, Monday June 21, 2021, after his induction into the office of Military Rabbi of the Armed Forces. (AP)
Updated 43 min 20 sec ago

Germany gets 1st military rabbi in over a century

Germany gets 1st military rabbi in over a century
  • The German army already had only Catholic and Lutheran chaplains, and there are plans to introduce Muslim religious counseling in future

BERLIN: The German military got its first rabbi in over a century Monday, with the inauguration to the post of Hungarian-born Zsolt Balla at a synagogue in Leipzig.
The German government in 2019 approved a proposal by the Central Council of Jews to restore religious counseling for Jews serving in the armed forces.
“This was unthinkable for decades and still can’t be taken for granted,” the head of the Central Council, Josef Schuster, said. “That’s why we have all reason to be happy and grateful today.”
During World War I, many Jews fought for Germany and dozens of rabbis are known to have performed pastoral work in the military. After Adolf Hitler’ came to power in 1933, the Nazis excluded Jews from all spheres of public life, later murdering millions in the Holocaust.
Schuster said Balla would ensure Jewish soldiers can serve in the military in line with their religious rules, and also teach non-Jewish soldiers about Judaism’s traditions and holy days, thereby helping reduce prejudice.
The 42-year-old rabbi, who was ordained in 2009, said he felt “incredibly gratitude to be allowed to live in a country that faces its past but has also resolved to go forward and actively make the world better.”
According to German news agency dpa, there are about 300 Jews in Germany’s 180,000-strong Bundeswehr. About half of the country’s military belong to a Christian denomination, while 3,000 are Muslim.
The German army already had only Catholic and Lutheran chaplains, and there are plans to introduce Muslim religious counseling in future.


Pro-Palestine activists from Palestine Action arrested after protest at Israeli defense factory in UK

Activists from UK-based Palestine Action occupied the Elbit Ferranti site in Oldham, Manchester, after scaling the roof, chaining the gates shut and smearing red paint over the factory’s walls. (Twitter/@Pal_action)
Activists from UK-based Palestine Action occupied the Elbit Ferranti site in Oldham, Manchester, after scaling the roof, chaining the gates shut and smearing red paint over the factory’s walls. (Twitter/@Pal_action)
Updated 22 June 2021

Pro-Palestine activists from Palestine Action arrested after protest at Israeli defense factory in UK

Activists from UK-based Palestine Action occupied the Elbit Ferranti site in Oldham, Manchester, after scaling the roof, chaining the gates shut and smearing red paint over the factory’s walls. (Twitter/@Pal_action)
  • Palestine Action said in a statement that it had staged protests at seven sites in the UK in the past month
  • The factory is owned by Elbit Systems, which produces specialist electrical equipment for military use

LONDON: Three pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested on Monday after forcing their way into a factory they claim makes components for the Israeli military.
Activists from UK-based Palestine Action occupied the Elbit Ferranti site in Oldham, Manchester, after scaling the roof, chaining the gates shut and smearing red paint over the factory’s walls.
The factory is owned by Elbit Systems, which produces specialist electrical equipment for military use.
Greater Manchester Police said in a statement that officers were called to Greenacres Road, Oldham, at about 6:40 a.m. following reports of a protest.

Three men were arrested and remain in custody, police said.
Huda Ammori, co-founder of Palestine Action, told Arab News that it was hoped the men would be released within 24 hours.
She said that the activists wanted to cause further disruption to Elbit Systems.
“Activists have gone inside before, but not caused significant damage to the machinery. This is the first time it has been done on this scale, so it is definitely an escalation in terms of our activism and our campaign against Elbit Systems’ operations here in the UK,” she said.
Ammori claimed that people were growing frustrated with the UK government’s response to Israel’s actions, especially following the 11-day conflict that rocked Gaza in May.
The UK Parliament held a debate to discuss a petition signed by over 385,000 people calling for sanctions on Israel. Politicians from both sides of the aisle urged the government to push forward the two-state solution by recognizing the state of Palestine, but most MPs who took part in the debate rejected the idea of sanctions against Israel.

Palestine Action said in a statement that it had staged protests at seven sites in the UK in the past month.
“The government has failed to take action, our parliamentarians have failed and protests have been ignored, and when everything else fails, the only tool we have left is to take the power back into our own hands, and expose exactly what Israel’s arms companies are doing and building in UK towns and cities,” Ammori said.
A North West Ambulance Service spokesman said that four people were treated for minor injuries.


Afghan leaders ready for first meeting with Biden as Taliban advances

Afghan leaders ready for first meeting with Biden as Taliban advances
Updated 21 June 2021

Afghan leaders ready for first meeting with Biden as Taliban advances

Afghan leaders ready for first meeting with Biden as Taliban advances
  • Ghani, Abdullah expected to discuss stalled peace process, bilateral ties with US

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, will travel to the US later this week for their first meeting with President Joe Biden since he assumed office, officials said.

“The issues that will be discussed at the meeting will be bilateral ties and the peace process,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah, told Arab News.

The meeting on Friday comes amid a phased withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, which began on May 1 and is scheduled to finish by September 11 in line with Biden’s order to end the “forever war.”

It follows a deadlock in US-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul, and the Taliban’s steady victories on the battlefield in various parts of Afghanistan in recent weeks.

In a Twitter post on Monday, Abdullah said that he was “looking for constructive meetings and discussions on US-Afghan relations, and establishing a just and durable peace in Afghanistan.”

Officials in Ghani’s office could not confirm what the president expected to achieve from the talks.

However, Fatima Morchal, a spokeswoman for Ghani, told Arab News that he “would exchange views on the continuation of bilateral cooperation.”

The visit follows a March proposal by Washington for Ghani and Abdullah to form a new administration that would include the Taliban, amid a warning that the insurgent group would make rapid territorial gains once all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Ghani has long expressed his hope that Biden would review the troop withdrawal process, which is based on a controversial deal signed between the former US administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

He also freed thousands of Taliban inmates — under pressure from former president Donald Trump — but vehemently rejected the idea of a new coalition government, vowing to pass the baton to the next administration following elections.

“In recent months, Ghani has pushed for a one-on-one audience with Biden to persuade him to keep some troops in Afghanistan,” an anonymous official told Arab News.

However, the Afghan president’s hopes were dashed on Sunday when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “looks forward to welcoming” the Afghan leaders and reassuring them of US diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support for the turmoil-hit country as the drawdown continues.

“The visit by President Ghani and Abdullah will highlight the enduring partnership between the US and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues,” she added.

Psaki further emphasized that Washington “continues to fully support the ongoing peace process and encourages all Afghan parties to participate meaningfully in negotiations to bring an end to the conflict.”

However, analysts have downplayed the importance of the upcoming meeting, warning that Washington is in favor of all-inclusive peace talks and will avoid solely backing Ghani’s government.

“This time, the Americans will make it clear to Ghani that he would lose US support if he pursues anti-peace agendas (failure to hand over power to an interim government based on intra-Afghan talks),” Abdul Satar Saadat, Ghani’s former legal adviser, told Arab News.

“The government is making propaganda about the visit, calling it as the start of a new chapter, but this meeting will be Ghani’s last meeting with Biden,” he added.

Ahmad Samin, a former World Bank adviser, agreed, adding that the president’s meeting with Biden will not “strengthen Ghani’s political image.”

“It is crystal clear that Ghani is not considered an ally of the US,” he told Arab News.

Samin further cited an example of a speech where Biden misspelled Ghani’s name as “Kayani,” a former army chief of Pakistan, to explain how “important” the Afghan president was to his US counterpart.

The Afghan visit comes amid a series of territorial gains by the Taliban in various regions of Afghanistan, including in the northern and northeastern areas, where they previously failed to establish a stronghold during their five-year rule, which ended with the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

The insurgents have captured dozens of districts in recent weeks, with both sides suffering heavy casualties, even as Afghan civilians continue to bear the brunt of the country’s protracted conflict.

The battlefield setbacks prompted Ghani to replace his security chiefs, including the head of the army, amid criticism that a lack of coordination was the reason for Taliban advances and a spike in casualties among government forces.

Following his appointment on Saturday, Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi called on Afghans to “cooperate with the troops in the war against advancing Taliban forces.”

Mohammadi, who fought under the late anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud during the civil wars in the 1990s, replaced Asadullah Khalid, who held the position since 2018.


Manila, Riyadh plan joint action on labor reforms, migrant rights

Manila, Riyadh plan joint action on labor reforms, migrant rights
Updated 21 June 2021

Manila, Riyadh plan joint action on labor reforms, migrant rights

Manila, Riyadh plan joint action on labor reforms, migrant rights
  • Duterte pushes for Filipino workers to be part of Kingdom’s ‘visionary’ reform program

MANILA: The Philippines and Saudi Arabia have agreed to increase cooperation on labor reforms and ensure the well-being of over 800,000 Filipino migrant workers in the Kingdom.

The subject was discussed during a meeting on Sunday between President Rodrigo Duterte’s special envoy and presidential assistant on foreign affairs, Robert Borje, and Saudi Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi.

Philippines Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sara Lou Arriola, and Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Enrico Fos were also part of the discussions.

Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary for Global Media Affairs J.V. Arcena told Arab News on Monday that Borje and Al-Rajhi highlighted the two nations’ commitment to “significant advancements in labor reform and fair migration.”

Borje told Al-Rajhi that Duterte welcomed Saudi Arabia’s Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), introduced in March, “as a significant step toward addressing issues with the existing sponsorship system” in the Kingdom.  

He also expressed confidence that the initiative will raise productivity and competitiveness of the labor market in the Kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia’s LRI is commendable, and President Duterte hopes Filipino household workers will be included in the reform initiative,” Borje said.

He emphasized Manila’s commitment to work with the Saudi government in implementing the labor reforms, especially to advance the rights and welfare of migrant workers. At the same time, Borje sought the Saudi official’s support for other initiatives to support Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the Kingdom.

These include a repatriation program for distressed OFWs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to strengthen the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh and the Philippine Consulate-General in Jeddah, and to make consular services more accessible to Filipinos in Saudi Arabia.

Borje underscored the need to address fundamental issues of all migrant workers in the Kingdom, such as harnessing technology to improve access to labor sector services, protection of wages, and automation of recruitment processes.

“Both sides are looking forward to the Joint Commission Meeting and also showed eagerness to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on labor soon, based on the LRI reforms that the Saudi government has done,” the statement said.

It added that Riyadh and Manila “hope to see the convening of a technical working group on the details of the MOU on labor.”

Describing the Saudi government’s reforms on migrants’ rights as “bold and visionary,” Borje aired his optimism that the Philippine-Saudi relations would “continue to grow beyond labor cooperation,” such as in the trade and investment sectors.

The Philippines is willing to collaborate with Saudi Arabia on a multi-dimensional partnership, in line with Duterte’s vision, he said.

Borje’s meeting with Al-Rajhi was part of the Philippine delegation’s five-day visit to Saudi Arabia, anchored on the president’s commitment to protect the rights and promote the welfare of OFWs.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the two officials also discussed “issues of common interest,” following which Saudi King Salman received a written letter from Duterte which dealt with relations between Riyadh and Manila, and ways to support and enhance them in various fields.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia marked 50 years of diplomatic ties in 2019, with Duterte congratulating King Salman for the Kingdom’s “landmark” LRO, which, among other benefits, abolished the kafala system for migrant workers last year.

In a phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May, Duterte renewed the Philippines’ commitment to strengthen bilateral and trade ties and intensify efforts to ensure migrant workers’ rights.

He also conveyed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s free COVID-19 vaccinations for Filipinos and the financial assistance extended to the Philippine health sector during outgoing Saudi Ambassador to the Philippines Abdullah Al-Bussairy’s farewell event in the Malacanang last week.

Saudi Arabia hosts more than 800,000 Filipinos, the largest number of any Gulf state, according to a 2020 government estimate. About half work as domestic laborers, while others are employed in the Kingdom’s construction, outsourcing and healthcare sectors.