How the Arab world can tackle the invisible mental-health pandemic

Experts say there are many ways to maintain a good mental balance during the uncertain times of COVID-19. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Experts say there are many ways to maintain a good mental balance during the uncertain times of COVID-19. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
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Updated 02 April 2021

How the Arab world can tackle the invisible mental-health pandemic

Experts say there are many ways to maintain a good mental balance during the uncertain times of COVID-19. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • Egyptian-Canadian Ally Salama wants a culture of mental wellness that speaks to the Middle Eastern mindset
  • With no let-up in COVID-19 cases in many countries, people are understandably feeling overwhelmed and anxious

DUBAI: Of the Arab world’s many problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, mental health is easily among the most insidious.

Fortunately, one young Arab has made it his life’s mission to help lead the conversation in the region and address the latent stigma surrounding feelings of depression and anxiety.

The story begins a few years ago when Ally Salama, a 24-year-old Egyptian athlete, moved to Toronto, Canada, to pursue a university degree in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Following a blissful childhood spent in Cairo and Dubai, Salama says, the move led to a dramatic change in his cultural surroundings, which left him feeling isolated and alone.

“I made my first friend four and a half years after attending my first day of university,” he told Arab News.

“It was very hard. We’re very culturally intelligent, but I didn’t want to let go of my values. I could neither mix nor mingle. As a result, I lost my identity and my mind in a year and a half. I felt completely different physically, mentally and psychologically. It caused a lot of issues for me in university.”

Depression quickly set in. He recalls not being able to get out of bed or managing to take care of his basic psychological needs.




The estimated annual global economic cost of mental health disorders stands at $2.5 trillion. (Shutterstock/File Photo)

“Smoking and drinking weren’t my thing, which is what created the biggest gap in university life,” he said.

After reluctantly seeking help from his university counsellor, Salama found the tools he needed to cope, and has since sought to help others.

“It takes a lot for a man to admit that,” Salama said. “It’s very difficult, and I’m here to make that awareness very visible. I didn’t have someone who’d been through this to tell me it was OK. That’s when I realized there are so many people who feel like me but who don’t have the courage to go through with it.”

His healing journey changed the way he views human strength — no longer in terms of physical fitness alone, but rather as a combination of physical and mental.

So when a university project came along about entrepreneurial problem solving, he used the opportunity to launch an online platform called Break the Silence Egypt.

Overnight, 180 people anonymously submitted testimonies revealing their deepest and darkest feelings, in English and Arabic. “It made me realize this is bigger than me,” Salama said. “Mental health is an issue.”




A man wearing a facemask walks past a mural painted as part of the Cities of Hope festival in Manchester and highlighting the effects of mental health as the number of cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 rises in 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Upon graduating in 2019, he did a short stint as a banker in Canada before realizing he was sitting on the wrong side of the desk.

In parallel, he developed a mental health magazine for the Middle East called EMPWR. The first issue came out in March 2019, during his final year of university.

In July that year, Salama’s mentor Dr. Nasser Loza, president-elect of the World Federation for Mental Health and a World Health Organization consultant, recommended him to speak at a UN workshop in Sharm El-Sheikh on the role of media in destigmatizing mental-health issues.

“I spoke about people’s perceptions and why the media’s work hinders people’s quality of life,” Salama recalled.

“That experience changed my life. Depression and mental illnesses aren’t rational — you don’t even want to get better. It’s irrational.”

Mental HealthIn Numbers

* $2.5 trillion - Estimated annual global economic cost of mental health disorders.

* 38% - Percentage of Arabs who know someone suffering from mental-health issues. 

* 56% - Percentage of Arabs who say quality mental-health care is difficult to access. 

* 48% - Percentage of Arabs who say seeking mental-health care is viewed negatively in their country. 

Source: Arab Youth Survey 2020, WHO

It was only a matter of time before EMPWR became a leading mental-health magazine in the region, from its base in Canada.

“The biggest issue with Arabs is that no matter how much they read online (about psychological issues), it’s not culturally relevant to our relationships, our marriages, our cultures, our homes and our thoughts,” Salama said.

“A big thing about success in psychological support is having a rapport with the person in front of you and understanding where they’re coming from. I understood because of my experience.”

Soon the project expanded into podcasting with the launch of Empathy Always Wins. “Podcasting is quite educational — 70 percent of listeners have a higher education degree,” Salama said.

“We got New York Times bestselling authors, the world’s No. 1 squash player, and businessmen who people really respect, to speak.”

With over 100,000 downloads last year and a rank in Harvard’s top seven social initiatives in 2019, the podcast’s success led Salama to launch the Art of Podcasting School with Microsoft for Start-Ups.

He describes his podcast as an all-inclusive, uninhibited exploration of personal vulnerabilities, with the aim of making the ability to share and understand one another’s feelings a sign of strength.

“Empathy is the key winning component for every man and woman,” he said. “Empathy always wins in life.”




Bayda Othman, a psychologist from the NGO Premiere Urgence, consults a patient at the mental health centre of the Bajet Kandala camp for displaced Yazidis near Dohuk, 430 kilometres (260 miles) northwest of the Iraqi capital, by the border with Syria, on November 18, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Although the magazine’s content is English-only right now, Salama plans to launch an Arabic version soon. And there certainly seems to be an appetite for the subject.

When he began posting on his Instagram account in Arabic as well as English, he saw his following jump from 5,000 to 73,000 in just six months.

“There’s a need for faces to be vulnerable — people connect with people, not with logos,” he said, describing the positive role of influencers and ambassadors like himself. “This is how you get the message across. People need to be vulnerable to lead.”

Today, Salama is working closely with schools, universities and corporations to help them kick-start programs around mental health.

So far, 40 schools in Canada have benefited, along with Microsoft, the Capital Club and Heriot-Watt University in Dubai.

“It’s about awareness and empowering other people to seek that help,” Salama said. “I’m just an enabler. But it’s my biggest passion when I speak to young children. The more shame, guilt and burden we carry, the more psychologically disturbed, distressed and traumatic we live our lives.”

Now he wants to bring the same message to the Middle East, where he believes millions can benefit from his experience. He wants every Arab home to be discussing mental health and wellbeing.

For younger Arabs, he feels the time has come to tackle such issues, especially as life has become increasingly unsettled in the wake of the pandemic.




With no let-up in COVID-19 infections in many countries, a steady uptick in distressing news and statistics, and unprecedented challenges at home and in the workplace, it is only natural that people are feeling overwhelmed. (Shutterstock/File Photo)

“Whether you like it or not, you won’t feel at peace at any point because we’re being bombarded, which can cause stress,” Salama said.

With no let-up in COVID-19 infections in many countries, a steady uptick in distressing news and statistics, and unprecedented challenges at home and in the workplace, it is only natural that people are feeling overwhelmed, anxious and stressed.

Experts say there are many ways to maintain a good mental balance during these uncertain times.

Among them are the benefits of establishing a good routine, focusing on the things you can control such as exercise and healthy eating, keeping living spaces tidy and limiting news consumption.

“People are feeling so alone, especially during COVID-19, more than ever,” Salama said. For him, taking good care of one’s mental health is the same as stretching before a workout to prevent physical injury.

“We don’t wait until we get injured in sports to warm up,” he said. “We warm up so we perform at our best.”

--------------------

Twitter: @CalineMalek


Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’
Updated 19 April 2021

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’
  • Witness testimonies confirm that racism underlies Houthis’ abuse of Africans trapped in Yemen
  • Lawyer says 10 women taken to hospital after the March 7 fire are now nowhere to be found

NEW YORK CITY: When Abdel Karim Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, fled the recent violence consuming Ethiopia’s Oromia region, he never imagined he would fall into the hands of Yemen’s Houthis.

In fact, like many of his compatriots desperate to escape conflict-ridden Ethiopia, he had not even heard of the Iran-backed militia, which seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2015.

When he first set out on his dangerous voyage across the Red Sea, Abdel Karim had envisioned an arduous overland crossing to one of the Arab Gulf states where opportunity and prosperity awaited him.

Events had taken a frightening turn in his native Ethiopia, where the security situation has continued to deteriorate amid growing unrest and political tensions. Human rights abuses, attacks by armed groups and communal and ethnic violence have forced thousands to seek refuge abroad.

Abdel Karim’s first encounter with the Houthis came just two days after his arrival in Sanaa, when two militiamen approached him in a marketplace. They singled him out in the crowd and demanded to see his ID.

Without so much as glancing at his papers, he was placed under arrest and taken to the city’s Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Holding Facility, where he found hundreds of African migrants languishing.

Among them was Issa Abdul Rahman Hassan, 20, who had been working a shift at a Sanaa restaurant to save for his journey when Houthi militiamen stormed in and carried him off to the detention center.

There he was placed inside a hangar with dozens of others. In a video recorded three months after his arrival, Issa gestures around him. “Look, we are living on top of each other. We have no food. No water. Some people are exhausted, as you can see. They just sleep night and day.

“We don’t even have medicine here. And organizations like UNHCR do not care about us. All of us here are Oromo,” he said, referring to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Human Rights Watch has corroborated several accounts like Issa’s, describing conditions in the detention center as “cramped and unsanitary, with up to 550 migrants in a hangar in the facility compound.”

On March 7, unable to tolerate these conditions any longer, the migrants went on hunger strike.

Conditions in the hangar before the fire were bad enough. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

According to witness testimonies, the camp’s Houthi guards told the migrants to say their “final prayers” before firing tear gas and what may have been a flash grenade into the hangar. A fire quickly broke out.

Amid the smoke and chaos, migrants trampled one another in their desperation to escape. According to Houthi accounts, 40 migrants succumbed to the smoke and flames. Human rights groups put the figure closer to 450 — not to mention the scores of burn victims and amputees.

Abdel Karim was in the bathroom when the fire broke out. He survived, but suffered severe burns to his arms. He was taken to a government hospital, where he could see from the window a heavy security presence deployed around the medical facility, blocking relatives and aid agencies from reaching the injured.

Afraid he would be rearrested, Abdel Karim discharged himself and escaped.

A fire victim is treated at a hospital in Aden. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

Despite his injuries, he joined survivors and relatives of the dead outside the UNHCR building in Sanaa to demand international action to hold the perpetrators to account.

They also demanded the names of all those killed, dignified funerals and closure for the families of those still missing.

“UNHCR did not respond to us,” Abdel Karim said in a video, shared with Arab News by the Oromia Human Rights Organization (OHRO).

“Only two days after the protests began, a UNHCR guy came out and told us that they (the agency’s staff) are also refugees like us here, guests who are incapable of doing anything. He told us that since 2016, the refugee file has been in the hands of the Houthis.”

INNUMBERS

550 Migrants in the IPNA hangar before March 7 fire.

6,000 Migrants in detention in mainly Houthi-controlled Yemen.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Undeterred, the crowd refused to leave, camping outside the UNHCR building for several weeks. Then, in the early hours of April 2, Houthi militiamen cordoned off the area, and dispersed the protesters with tear gas and live rounds.

“They hit us, dragged us by force, took our fingerprints and photographed us, before loading some of us into cars and shuttling us to the city of Dhamar, where they abandoned us in the rugged mountainous areas,” said Abdel Karim.

“We knew nothing and no one there. We just kept walking. We had no food, no water and hardly any money. When we stopped at one of the small villages, one of us got a bottle of water, and we passed it on to one another. There was only enough water to wet the tips of our tongues.”

The group eventually made it to Aden two days later. From the UNHCR’s headquarters in the port city, Abdel Karim asked to be taken to hospital to have his burns treated.

According to Arafat Jibril, head of OHRO, only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown.

Arafat Jibril, head of Oromia Human Rights Organization. (Supplied photo)

“African migrants just keep disappearing,” Jibril told Arab News. “The numbers of the forcibly disappeared are on the rise. But we have no means of knowing the exact numbers. This would be the job of international organizations, provided they are given access to secret detention centers, many of which are in Sanaa.”

As a lawyer and activist, Jibril collects eyewitness testimonies from inside Houthi-occupied territories in the form of secret WhatsApp recordings made by determined volunteers compelled to expose the horrors they see committed against African migrants.

Piecing together what happened to the disappeared is proving a challenge. “We know, for example, that 10 women who were taken to hospital are now nowhere to be found,” she said.

Only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

“We know that detentions of African migrants are continuing on a large scale, and that there is a long ‘wanted’ list, including the names of protest ringleaders and those migrants who talked to the press.

“And we know that the Houthis sort the migrants out. They send the young and healthy to war, and position them at the forefront of the trenches so ‘the blacks’ — as the Houthis call the African migrants — would die first. We have heard many accounts like that from those who survived the battles and returned to their families.

“They send African women to the battlefield, too, referring to them as Zaynabiyat (the Houthis’ all-female militia), to do the cooking and other services. At least 180 women and 30 children who had been detained were kidnapped two days before the fire. We also know nothing about them.”

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen on April 23, 2019. (AFP)

Few doubt that racism lies at the core of this maltreatment.

“Shortly after the tragic fire, Houthis were bullying the African migrants, hurling racial slurs at them, calling them ‘the grandchildren of Bilal’ — the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam — and threatening ‘to burn you one by one like we burned your friends’,” Jibril said.

She fears these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in a largely overlooked tragedy that, despite its increasing severity, has failed to capture the interest of the international community.

The Houthis are well aware that African migrants have no one looking out for their interests.

“No organization to protect them,” said Jibril. “No one. So, the Houthis say, ‘let’s use them’. The only ‘sin’ these migrants committed was that they were born black.”

_____________________

Twitter: @EphremKossaify


Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit
Foreign ministers from Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and adviser to the president of the UAE Anwar Gargash hold a press conference in Paphos on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2021

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit
  • Diplomatic move by Athens against backdrop of Libyan situation, tension with Turkey

CAIRO: Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias arrived in Egypt on Sunday during a tour leading up to a visit to Saudi Arabia. It comes within the framework of a diplomatic move by Athens against the backdrop of the situation in Libya and tension with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Dendias tweeted on Saturday: “Yesterday I was in Cyprus to participate in the quartet meeting with Emirates, Israel and Cyprus, and I will go tomorrow to Cairo, and on Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, while I will participate on Monday in the European Council meeting.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry held talks with Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias on his arrival in Cairo. They dealt with the bilateral ties between the countries and ways of enhancing them, in addition to the trilateral cooperation between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, and regional and international issues of common concern.
Last February, foreign ministers participating in the “Friendship Forum” in Athens, which included Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Cyprus, in the absence of Jordan, stressed the importance of stability in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Participants said that “discussion of confronting provocative acts and violations in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean was held.”
Saudi Arabia and Greece carried out a joint air exercise, “Eye of the Falcon 1,” in Crete, with the aim of refining and developing the skills of the air crew and technical division, and raising the combat readiness of their air forces. This was in addition to exchanging military expertise in the implementation and planning of air operations.

FASTFACT

Saudi Arabia and Greece carried out a joint air exercise, ‘Eye of the Falcon 1,’ in Crete, with the aim of refining and developing the skills of the air crew and technical division, and raising the combat readiness of their air forces.

Greek and Turkish disputes over maritime rights continue in the eastern Mediterranean region, with each side claiming encroachment on their maritime areas, while Arab countries condemn what they describe as Turkish military intervention in several Arab countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The two ministers held a consultation session in Cairo to address common regional issues.
The Greek foreign minister tweeted through his official account on Twitter that he and his Egyptian counterpart discussed bilateral relations and developments in the eastern Mediterranean.
Spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Ahmed Hafez, said that the talks between the two ministers dealt with issues of bilateral cooperation and regional issues that were a priority for both countries.
The Greek minister’s visit is the second in less than a month and a half. He is discussing with Egyptian officials bilateral cooperation and reviewing the latest developments within common political files, most notably the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, as well as Syria.


Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
Updated 19 April 2021

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
  • The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day

JERUSALEM: Israelis stepped into the streets without masks on Sunday for the first time in a year, a key milestone as the country vaccinates its way out of a coronavirus nightmare.
“It’s very strange but it’s very nice,” said Eliana Gamulka, 26, after getting off a bus near the busy Jerusalem shopping boulevard of Jaffa Street and removing her face covering.
“You can’t pretend that you don’t know anyone any more,” she smiled.
With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.
For Gamulka, a project manager, the good news came at the perfect time: Just two weeks before her wedding.
It will be “very nice to celebrate with everyone, now without masks,” she said. “The pictures will be great! I’m very relieved. We can start living again.”
The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day.
That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings — although masks are still required in indoor public spaces.

HIGHLIGHTS

• With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.

• The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day. That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings.

Israel just months ago had the world’s highest infection rate, a coronavirus outbreak that left 6,300 people dead among 836,000 cases.
But the country sent its coronavirus caseload tumbling after striking a deal for a vast stock of Pfizer/BioNTech jabs.
In exchange, it agreed to pay above market price and share data it gathers on the recipients, using one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems.
Since December, some 53 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million people have received both doses of the jab, including around four-fifths of the population aged over 20.
As recently as January it was registering 10,000 cases per day.
But as the effects of mass vaccination kicked in, by March it was able to implement a gradual reopening.
“There’s no better advertisement for Pfizer,” said Shalom Yatzkan, a computer programmer who had been in quarantine after catching the virus.
“I was sick for three days, I had neck pains and felt weak,” he said as he walked through central Jerusalem. “I just hope the new variants don’t catch up with us.”
Another Sunday landmark in Israel’s exit from coronavirus restrictions was the full resumption of the country’s educational system, without restrictions on the numbers of pupils in classrooms.


Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights
The Berbers are descendants of pre-Arab North Africans, whose historic homelands stretched from the Canary Isles and Morocco to the deserts of western Egypt. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2021

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights
  • The Berbers comprise about 10 million people in Algeria, making up roughly a quarter of the country’s population of 40 million. The majority live in Kabylie, a restive, mountainous region to the east of the capital Algiers

ALGIERS: Thousands rioted in Algeria’s northern Kabylie region 20 years ago this week — a symbolic chapter in the long fight for Berber rights.
The indigenous group is also in the vanguard of the Hirak anti-government protests that have rocked the country since 2019.
The Berbers are descendants of pre-Arab North Africans, whose historic homelands stretched from the Canary Isles and Morocco to the deserts of western Egypt.
They refer to themselves as the Amazigh, meaning “free people,” and have long fought for recognition for their ancient culture and language in modern states across the region.
Here is an overview of the Berbers’ varying fortunes in the Maghreb and Libya.
The Berbers comprise about 10 million people in Algeria, making up roughly a quarter of the country’s population of 40 million.
The majority live in Kabylie, a restive, mountainous region to the east of the capital Algiers.
On April 18, 2001, a teenager held at a gendarmerie post near Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylie, was hit by a hail of bullets. He died two days later.
Massinissa Guermah’s death sparked riots, as Kabylie was preparing to celebrate the 21st anniversary of its fight for recognition of its Berber identity.

An estimated 126 people died in the two months of unrest, many of them youths shot in clashes with riot police.
Thousands of others were wounded in the crackdown.
In 2002, Berber was finally recognized as a national — but not an official — language, allowing it to be taught as a second language in some Berber areas.
Its recognition as an official language only came with constitutional reforms in 2016.
Berber New Year was celebrated as an official feast day for the first time on Jan. 12, 2018.
Morocco is home to the world’s largest Berber community.
According to a 2014 census, more than a quarter (26.7 percent) of Morocco’s population of 35 million use one of the country’s three main Berber dialects.
Their language was only given official status alongside Arabic in a new constitution in 2011.
Their Tifinagh alphabet now appears on many public buildings next to Arabic and French.
Since 2010, the Tamazight TV channel has been dedicated to promoting Berber culture.
In Libya, the Berbers were persecuted under former ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
However, they make up around 10 percent of the population, living mainly in the mountains west of Tripoli or in the vast southern desert regions.
In Tunisia, official statistics based on ethnicity are prohibited.
While their traditional heartland is in the south, an exodus from the countryside means Berbers today are mainly found in the capital Tunis.


How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
Updated 19 April 2021

How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
  • Data from polling agency YouGov suggests pandemic will have long-lasting impact on attitudes towards public health
  • Fear of catching COVID-19 has fallen among Saudi and UAE respondents, while willingness to accept vaccines has grown

DUBAI: On March 11, 2020, just a matter of months after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, outbreaks of the novel coronavirus were reported from multiple continents — marking the start of an unprecedented health emergency and an abrupt change in daily habits.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to raise its alert from a scattering of localized epidemics to a full-blown pandemic, governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area were quick to respond.

Mandatory nationwide closures were put in place, schools and workplaces emptied, front-line workers mobilized and households ordered to stay home. Few could remember a time of such disruption or ever seeing their streets so empty.

Data collected by British polling agency YouGov found that in April 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, some 75 percent of respondents across Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt “somewhat” or “very scared” of contracting the virus. This fear has generally fallen as the pandemic has worn on.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments placed much of the onus on the general public to abide by new personal hygiene and social distancing guidelines.

In the same YouGov poll, 78 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents said they had improved their personal hygiene (frequently washing their hands and using hand sanitizer), while 80 percent said they had avoided public places and 70 percent said they had started wearing face masks in public.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through contact with infected individuals when airborne particles are expelled through coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces and transferring particles to the eyes, nose and mouth.

A Saudi police officer inspects a motorist's permit to travel during the lockdown in the Kingdom in April 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19. (SPA file photo)

The combination of lockdown measures and ubiquitous public health messages has had a profound effect on people’s daily lives, running the gamut from how they work and study to how they travel and socialize.

It has also highlighted the significant role that widespread community uptake of hygiene and social distancing rules can play in successfully containing outbreaks.

During the first six months of the pandemic, YouGov data showed rates of mask wearing were high in the GCC. Some 80 percent of UAE respondents and 69 percent of Saudi respondents said they were consistently wearing face masks during this period.

Throughout the pandemic, at-risk groups, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, have been urged to be extra vigilant. In August 2020, 80 percent of Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places, whereas just 58 percent of 18-24-year-old Saudis said they took the same precautions.

In the same month in the UAE, 81 percent of people aged over 45 reported wearing a face mask in public, while just 66 percent of 18-24 year olds said they were complying with the mandatory mask rule.

Although men and women are equally susceptible to catching coronavirus, medical data suggests men are more likely to suffer from severe symptoms and ultimately die from the disease.

In August 2020, four out of every five Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places. (Reuters file photo)

And yet, despite WHO advice to the contrary, YouGov data found that male Saudi and UAE residents were less likely to improve their personal hygiene, less likely to wear face masks, less likely to avoid crowded places and less likely to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 142 million people have been infected worldwide and more than 3 million have died. The UAE has seen about 500,000 COVID-19 cases, while Saudi Arabia’s total is approaching the 405,000 mark.

Compared with many European states, where governments were slower to react to the pandemic, the outbreak in the GCC has been relatively mild, with a much lower death rate. But even here, as vaccines are rolled out and restrictions are gradually eased, things feel a long way from normal.


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“What’s happening to us may seem to so many people to be alien and unnatural, but plagues are not new to our species — they’re just new to us,” writes social epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis in his book “Apollo’s arrow: The profound and enduring impact of coronavirus on the way we live.”

And just like the great epidemics of the past, writes Christakis, the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, bringing with it a brighter period in which people seek out long-denied social interactions.

The Yale professor even predicts a second “roaring 20s” similar to the decade of prosperity and cultural resurgence that followed the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

But in order for this to happen, people must be safe — and feel safe. Annual vaccinations, improved treatments and vaccine passports are all possible tools to get societies and economies back on track.

Until then, the behavior of those least at risk will continue to impact those most at risk. Therefore, getting “back to normal” will depend not only on medical science, but on the actions of the community as a whole.

Without a widespread uptake of vaccines and containment measures, the virus will enjoy a stronger foothold and a greater chance of mutating, allowing it to become more transmissible and its symptoms more severe.

“When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases,” according to the WHO’s “Vaccine Explained” series. “The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates — and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.”

INNUMBERS

83% Saudi respondents who believe the pandemic situation is improving.

14% UAE respondents who believe the pandemic situation is getting worse.

70% Saudi and UAE respondents who say they will continue avoiding crowded places.

Source: YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor, March 2021

A major factor in uptake is the trustworthiness of the vaccines on offer.

In early December last year, the UAE became one of the first countries to approve the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use. YouGov’s polling data at the end of that month found that just 56 percent of UAE respondents felt comfortable taking the vaccine or had already done so. In Saudi Arabia, that figure was only 42 percent.

An Emirati man gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at al-Barsha Health Centre in Dubai on December 24, 2020. (AFP file photo)

Since the national vaccination program was launched in Saudi Arabia, more than 2 million doses have been administered at 500 centers across the Kingdom. In the UAE, which has one of the highest vaccination rates per head of the population in the world, more than 10 million have been administered.

Since the December 2020 poll, confidence in the safety and efficacy of the new crop of COVID-19 vaccines has grown. Data from the YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor in March 2021 showed an increase in willingness to take the vaccine by 20 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia and 26 percent in the UAE.

Now the vast majority of respondents in the UAE (82 percent) and in Saudi Arabia (62 percent) say that they have either received a vaccine, or are willing to take one.

In other findings, 83 percent of Saudi respondents believe the pandemic situation is improving; only 14 percent UAE respondents believe the pandemic situation is getting worse, while but 70 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents intend to continue avoiding crowded places.

None of this is surprising given that scientists still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, its mutations, spread patterns, long-term symptoms and its ability to outmaneuver the vaccines and treatments doctors throw at it.

Mask wearing, hand sanitizing and social distancing might therefore be requisite behaviors for some time yet to come.