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

  • 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).


Exclusive: St. Kitts & Nevis PM aims to ‘cement ties with the Middle East’

Updated 59 min 6 sec ago

Exclusive: St. Kitts & Nevis PM aims to ‘cement ties with the Middle East’

  • Prime Minister Timothy Harris emphasizes ‘enduring appeal’ of Saint Kitts and Nevis amid a global pandemic
  • Dual-island nation has announced a discount in the amount needed to secure citizenship for a limited period

DUBAI: After the turmoil and tedium of the last few months, a distant island getaway is probably what tops most people’s dreams. One Caribbean destination, surrounded by sparkling sand and turquoise waters, is intent on using its natural landscapes to nurse people back to normality — and build commercial bridges to the Middle East in the process.

In an interview via Zoom with Arab News, Prime Minister Timothy Harris noted with satisfaction that his country was home to a number of individuals from the Middle East, including the GCC countries. But his ambitions are clearly much bigger than that.

Harris, who was re-elected to a second term as prime minister of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis on June 5, says he will continue to deepen the dual-island nation’s relations with the GCC region.

“We intend to open an embassy soon in the UAE,” he told Arab News. “This will further cement our ties to the Middle East region and to the UAE specifically.”

With their relative affluence and large expatriate populations, GCC countries constitute a key part of the catchment area of the Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program of St. Kitts and Nevis.

“What the CBI program offers applicants is the advantage of mobility,” said Harris, adding: “In the context of St. Kitts and Nevis, it also offers citizenship in a nation that is democratic, peaceful and safe.”

(Full Arab News interview with Prime Minister Timothy Harris)

His government is also counting on efficient processing of citizenship applications to help it stand out in a crowded field.

Amid the coronavirus disease pandemic, some, particularly for those hailing from troubled countries in the Middle East, see a silver lining: A discount on the citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Harris has announced a time-limited reduction in the contribution required to secure citizenship. The government of St. Kitts and Nevis has decided to temporarily reduce the family minimum contribution by $45,000 to $150,000. However, the minimum contribution for a single applicant remains at $150,000.

Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts and Nevis. (Supplied)
A single applicant seeking economic citizenship normally contributes at least $150,000, while the cost for a family of up to four comes to $195,000. But from July 7 until the end of this year, families of up to four people will be able to secure citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis at the discounted rate.
The decision was influenced by the global fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and the efforts of the Harris government to find creative ways to stabilize the economy and put it back on the path to the growth rates it had enjoyed over five years preceding the pandemic.

Harris is upfront about his objectives. “This limited-time offer will provide the resources to help us successfully fight COVID-19 and enhance the safety nets for those who have lost their jobs or income as a consequence," he said.

(St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris talking about his country's COVID-19 response)

“The CBI program is crucial to our growth and development. The effects of COVID-19 have also destabilized our economy. Without the CBI program we would have been in serious danger.”

The St. Kitts and Nevis CBI program grants citizenship to individuals of high net worth and their families, who get visa-free access to 156 countries, including EU member states and the UK.

Migrate World Ltd is one of the authorized representatives for the CBI program for the Middle East and Africa. Speaking to Arab News in May, Moe Alhaj, CEO of Migrate World Ltd, said: “There’s been a notable increase — of around 40 percent — in applicants from the Arab world during the pandemic.

“The individuals that the program caters to in the Middle East are largely from Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.” The CBI program does not accept applicants from Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

(St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris talking about his country's citizenship program)

During the pandemic, CBI officials say, the program has witnessed a 40 percent increase in applicants from families hailing from the Arab world. Arab News could not independently verify the figure.

What is undeniable is that while the coronavirus crisis continues to ravage countries across the globe, particularly those in North America, the Caribbean region has largely been spared high caseloads.

The total population of residents in the Caribbean is just under 45 million. As of July 27, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections stood at 91,907. The nations with the highest number of cases are the Dominican Republic with 64,156; French Guiana with 7,332; Haiti with 7,315 cases and Puerto Rico with 5,416. 

Aerial view of Black Rocks Beach on St. Kitts. (Supplied)

St. Kitts and Nevis had one of the lowest numbers. By May 19 all of the 16 cases on its two islands had recovered, although one new case was announced on July 4. There have been no deaths. The islands went into lockdown on March 31 when just eight cases had been declared. It was then extended until April 18 and then again to April 25.

“We began an aggressive public education campaign in our schools and workplaces, security forces and health-care workers early on,” Harris told Arab News. “As cases rose, we were at a high level of alertness and citizens and residents complied, so we were able to stop the spread efficiently.”

The CBI program was launched in St. Kitts and Nevis in 1984 as a way to assist the island’s economy, which had suffered due to the collapse of the sugar industry, and to stimulate foreign direct investment inflows.

FASTFACT

ETHNIC GROUPS

- 53,821 = Population of St. Kitts & Nevis

- 92.5% African

- 3% Mixed

- 2.1% White

- 1.5% East Indian

“Clearly, size does matter and being a small nation state with limited resources, we had to find unique ways of bringing in investment that would help the country thrive from year to year,” Harris told Arab News.

“While COVID-19 has placed the world under enormous strain, St. Kitts and Nevis’s record to date of zero hospitalizations and zero fatalities from the disease underlines the character and enduring appeal of our great country.”

With alluring beaches, laid back Caribbean lifestyle and faraway location, the offer is hard to refuse — if one’s pockets are deep enough.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor