Coronavirus crisis changing public attitudes in the Middle East, polls suggest

A medical staffer obtains a swab sample from a man inside a vehicle at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing centre in al-Khawaneej of Dubai. (AFP)
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Updated 10 May 2020

Coronavirus crisis changing public attitudes in the Middle East, polls suggest

  • YouGov online tracker of public opinion finds higher virus threat perception among Saudi and UAE residents
  • A total of 53 percent of respondents in KSA and the UAE expect a resolution to the crisis by the end of August

DUBAI: Public opinion surveys conducted in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are revealing a mix of sharp changes in attitudes and an uptick in optimism that the coronavirus crisis will be resolved in the next three months.

Nearly two months ago, as coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the online research firm YouGov began tracking attitudes and behaviors surrounding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), using their global research panel of more than 8 million respondents.

When YouGov published its first findings on March 18, 64 percent of Saudi residents said they were scared of catching the virus; the corresponding figure for the UAE was 61 percent.

On May 6, YouGov released the eighth wave of its tracker data, which suggests that the threat perception has only increased: 75 percent of Saudi respondents reported being fearful of contracting the infection while 73 percent of UAE residents felt the same way.

Just 7 percent described themselves as “Not at all scared that I will contract COVID-19,” while 12 out of the 2,002 people surveyed reported having already contracted the virus.

Globally, over 4 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 276,000 of them have died.

In Saudi Arabia, the number of confirmed cases now exceeds 35,000 while the UAE has reported 16,793 confirmed cases.

A Saudi man, wearing a protective mask as a precaution against COVID-19 coronavirus disease, walks with his wife along Tahlia street in the centre of the capital Riyadh. (AFP/File Photo)

With widespread and persistent fear of the illness continuing to dominate daily life, it is unsurprising that 46 percent of Saudi and UAE residents strongly feel that the pandemic will permanently change the way we live and interact with each other.

Just 8 percent of respondents do not agree with the statement “The coronavirus pandemic will permanently change the way we live and interact with each other.”

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have managed to keep COVID-19 fatality cases to less than 1 percent of the total number of infections — among the lowest ratios in the world, going by available data.

According to self-reported figures, just 0.66 percent of those contracting the virus in Saudi Arabia die from the disease where as In the UAE, the figure is 0.93 percent.

These figures are lower than the WHO’s latest estimated mortality rate of 3.4 percent (by comparison, seasonal flu globally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected).

The low mortality rates of Saudi Arabia and the UAE can perhaps be explained by their high testing rates, young populations and effective social distancing measures.

Volunteers distribute Iftar meals to migrant workers keeping distance from each other during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan within the initiative of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to distribute 10 million meals. (AFP/File Photo)

YouGov data suggests that the practice of social distancing has been widely adopted in both countries.

Indeed, 98 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents said they have changed their daily behaviors and are now taking precautionary measures.

These include avoiding crowded places (78 percent), wearing a face mask (71 percent), improved personal hygiene (74 percent) and working from home (47 percent).

In the UAE, where wearing a face mask is now mandatory in public, 80 percent of respondents said they are complying with this measure.

The corresponding figure for Saudi Arabia is lower, at 63 percent.

By contrast, the percentage of people who said they are working from home in Saudi Arabia is higher (54 percent) than in the UAE (44 percent).

And as the Gulf countries enter the second week of the holy month of Ramadan, the YouGov data indicates that the coronavirus is not only changing residents’ daily habits, but also having an impact on some of their oldest traditions.

A security guard checks temperature of man arriving at a shopping mall, as a screening precaution against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 4, 2020, as malls reopen after authorities began a partial lifting of the coronavirus lockdown. (AFP)

With more residents observing Ramadan at home, 50 percent of UAE and Saudi respondents reported spending more money on essential items such as groceries, 45 percent of residents said they are watching more TV than in previous years, and 49 percent said they are watching more online content.

With 68 percent reporting fewer in-person gatherings, many residents are looking online to maintain connections with friends and families.

The YouGov data suggests 62 percent of Saudi and UAE residents have increased the amount of time they are spending socializing online through messaging or video calling and 66 percent are spending more time social media browsing.

Data released by YouGov in early April suggests that an increasing number of people (51 percent) in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned about losing their jobs.

Notably, UAE residents are much more worried about this outcome compared with those of Saudi Arabia (64 percent vs 38 percent).

People wearing masks for protection against the coronavirus, walk in the Mall of Dubai on April 28, 2020, after the shopping centre was reopened as part of moves in the Gulf emirate to ease lockdown restrictions. (AFP/File Photo)

Mindful of a challenging time ahead, 58 percent of Saudi respondents said they have decreased their spending on non-essential items since last year.

The proportion of UAE residents who expressed the same sentiment was higher, 61 percent.

At the same time, Gulf Arabs' streak of generosity remains strong as ever, with 39 percent of respondents saying that they have increased their charitable donations since last year.

In the two countries, 35 percent said their charitable giving is the same as last year, with just 20 percent saying this amount has decreased since last year.

The virus impact is being felt positively in other areas as well.

Going by the YouGov tracker data, a majority of residents in Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel that the coronavirus crisis will have a positive impact on life as they know it.

Only 10 per cent (most likely 18-24-year-olds) said they feel that nothing positive will emerge from the experience.

A Saudi man, wearing a protective mask as a precaution against COVID-19 coronavirus disease, walks along Tahlia street in the centre of the capital Riyadh on March 15, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

The vast majority of respondents (61 percent) agree that coronavirus pandemic will have a positive impact on the environment; 55 percent feel that it will lead to greater appreciation of family and social ties; and 34 percent believe it has the potential to drive transformation in technology.

The data suggests, however, that the two countries’ residents are divided on when and how the coronavirus crises is likely to be resolved.

In terms of numbers, 37 percent were optimistic that a global resolution would happen by the end of June; 53 percent said by the end of August; and 66 percent by the end of the year.

Whilst the majority are optimistic, 13 percent expect the crisis to continue into 2021 and a further 21 percent do not know or cannot say when the crises might end.

Many in the Kingdom and the UAE think waiting for a vaccine to materialize before resumption of normal activities might not be possible.

Just 9 percent said that they would need a vaccine to be ready before they feel comfortable visiting shopping malls.

One in five people feel that an effective coronavirus treatment is the key to getting life back to normal.

Overall, a mere 20 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents said they would feel comfortable visiting restaurants, cinemas, shopping malls and hotels even if a medicine to treat coronavirus was made widely available.

Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

Updated 31 May 2020

Private schools and universities in Lebanon are in economic crisis

  • Education centers risk closing or reducing costs after nationwide disruption

BEIRUT: The future of thousands of Lebanese students is at stake as private educational institutions assess their ability to continue operations in the next academic year, due to the economic crunch facing Lebanon.

“If the economic situation continues, private schools will be forced to close down for good, a move that will affect more than 700,000 students, 59,000 teachers and 15,000 school administrators,” said Father Boutros Azar, secretary-general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon, and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon.

Over 1,600 private schools are operating in Lebanon, including free schools and those affiliated to various religion societies, Azar said.

The number of public schools in Lebanon, he added, is 1,256, serving 328,000 students from the underprivileged segment of society and 200,000 Syrian refugee students.

“The number of teachers in the formal education sector is 43,500 professors and teachers — 20,000 of them are permanent staff and the rest work on a contract basis,” Azar said.

This development will also have an impact on private universities, whose number has increased to 50 in the past 20 years.

Ibrahim Khoury, a special adviser to the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), told Arab News: “All universities in Lebanon are facing an unprecedented crisis, and the message of AUB President Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri, a few weeks ago, was a warning about the future of university education in light of the economic crisis that Lebanon is facing.”

Khoury said many universities would likely reduce scientific research and dispense with certain specializations.

“Distance education is ongoing, but classes must be opened for students in the first semester of next year, but we do not yet know what these classes are.”

Khoury added: “Universities are still following the official exchange rate of the dollar, which is 1,512 Lebanese pounds (LBP), but the matter is subject to future developments.”

Lebanese parents are also worried about the future of their children, after the current school year ended unexpectedly due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Dr. Tarek Majzoub, the minister of education and higher education, ended the academic year in public schools and gave private schools the right to take a call on this issue.

He said: “The coming academic year will witness intensification of lessons and a review of what students have missed.”

But what sort of academic year should students expect?

Differences have developed between school owners, parents, and teachers over the payment of tuition fees and teachers’ salaries.

Azar said: “What I know so far is that 80 percent of the Catholic schools in Lebanon will close their doors next year unless they are financially helped. Some families today are unable to pay the rest of the dues for the current year either because their breadwinners were fired or not working, while others do not want to pay dues because schools remain closed due to the pandemic.

“Lebanese people chose private schools for their children because they trusted them for their quality — 70 percent of Lebanese children go to private schools. Today, we are facing a major crisis, and I say that if education collapses in Lebanon, then the area surrounding Lebanon will collapse. Many Arab students from the Gulf states receive their education in the most prestigious Lebanese schools,” he added.

“What we are witnessing today is that the educational contract is no longer respected. It can be said that what broke the back of school owners is the approval by the Lebanese parliament in 2018 of a series of ranks and salaries that have bankrupted the state treasury and put all institutions in a continuous deficit.”

Those in charge of formal education expect a great rush for enrollment in public schools and universities, but the ability of these formal institutions to absorb huge numbers of students is limited.

Majzoub said that his ministry was “working on proposing a law to help private schools provide a financial contribution for each learner within the available financial capabilities or grants that can be obtained.”

The undersecretary of the Teachers’ Syndicate in Private Schools, former government minister Ziad Baroud, said: “The crisis of remaining student fees and teachers’ salaries needs to be resolved by special legislation in parliament that regulates the relationship between all parties — teachers, parents, and schools — and takes into account the measures to end teachers’ contracts before July 5.”

Baroud spoke of “hundreds of teachers being discharged from their schools every year based on a legal article that gives the right to school owners to dismiss any teacher from service, provided that they send the teacher a notification before July 5.”

H said it should be kept in mind that thousands of teachers have not yet received their salaries for the last four months, and some of them had received only 50 percent or even less of their salaries.

Khoury said: “The AUB received a loan from the late Prime Minister Rashid Karami at the beginning of the 1975 Lebanese civil war to keep it afloat. In the 1990s, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri provided aid and grants to the universities. Today, no one can help universities.”

Last Thursday, the Lebanese parliament adopted a proposal submitted by the leader of the Future Parliamentary Bloc, Bahia Hariri, to allocate LBP300 billion to the education sector to help it mitigate the effects of COVID-19.