To beat the virus, work together … but will we ever learn?
As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to spread, many public health systems around the globe have come under severe pressure, exposing structural cracks that have been ignored for a long time. Public health in much of the Arab world is no exception.
In countries across the region such as Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where violence and war have been raging, many health sectors have collapsed entirely; it is almost impossible to say how much the virus has spread. These countries are facing two crises — first, they are facing economic and political instability and violence, resulting in millions of refugees and displaced people, and second, they lack the financial or medical resources to face this pandemic.
Unfortunately, added to this grim picture is the seemingly inescapable trend of politicizing everything in the region, thus deepening the challenges by prioritizing politics over public health concerns. One of the clearest examples of this is the total lack of transparency in many of the region’s countries.
The regional director of the World Health Organization in the Middle East, Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, said in late March that “most of the virus-related data in the Arab world is poorly communicated in best-case scenarios, and intentionally covered up in the worst.”
This lack of transparency about data, even health data, can be seen clearly in how Iran first tried to cover up or under report some information on the real number of cases, an act that contributed to an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Iran.
More worrying is how unclear some countries are about how many actual cases they have, because of a lack of medical testing kits and tools. In Libya, for example, where there is an ongoing civil war, there have been only about 500 tests conducted, resulting in 49 confirmed cases. The UN has reported that hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens and refugees have all been cramped into makeshift housing, and are unable to practice social distancing, and facing a lack of clean water in some areas. One can only imagine what the real number of cases may be.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to spread, many public health systems around the globe have come under severe pressure... much of the Arab world is no exception.
Syria and Yemen are in even worse situations, given their millions of refugees and those facing starvation; it is almost impossible to carry out testing for the virus or to plan proper medical intervention for those affected. In comparison, more stable countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have been able to conduct thousands of tests and have imported medical equipment and supplies to meet challenges arising from the pandemic.
In Egypt, there is widespread skepticism inside and outside the country about the official number of cases being reported. But worse than that is the inability of many of the poor in Egypt, officially estimated to be more than a third of the population, to have sanitary living environments and access to clean water and soap, basic hygiene requirements in the face of this pandemic.
Lebanon also faces a daunting task; it was experiencing a financial meltdown even before the crisis, it has close links to the disease’s hotspots such as Iran, and it has the highest levels of refugees per capita in the world.
The Gaza Strip is, of course, facing this pandemic alone, as it has faced many other crises, frustrated by the stranglehold of the Israeli military blockade.
Despite the stark differences in wealth and levels of instability across the region, the bottom line is that no country in the region is immune to the disease. The virus does not need a passport to travel, and refugees and the displaced will not stop crossing borders unless stability and peace return and they can feel safe.
That means that whether a country is rich or poor, stable or in the middle of war, the only real defense is a joint defense. No country is safe if its neighbor is not.
For decades, the region has lacked the political will to cooperate on challenges such as economic integration, climate change policies, and plans for joint projects and joint security. However, this pandemic may finally persuade these countries’ leaders that they have no option but to accept that their only defense against it — and its likely resulting economic and political crises — is to work together.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell