Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
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Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
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Updated 07 July 2021

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection

Lebanon’s drug trade booms with help from Hezbollah’s Captagon connection
  • Authorities struggle to deal with narco-trafficking originating in Bekaa Valley and Syria
  • Economic crisis, Syria’s war and political elite’s docility blamed for lost battle against drugs

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces say they have launched dozens of operations in recent months in search of laboratories manufacturing Captagon pills, while closely monitoring coastal and land borders with Syria in an effort to identify smuggling routes.

The country’s fight against drugs, though, is an uphill battle amid multiple overlapping crises, notably its economic collapse and political paralysis.

And the elephant in the room is Hezbollah: Many suspect the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group facilitates the illicit drug trade to finance its operations while maintaining plausible deniability.

Captagon is an amphetamine, and one of the most commonly used drugs on Middle East battlefields.

Combatants addicted to the narcotic say it helps them stay awake for days and numbs their senses, giving them stamina for long battles and allowing them to kill with abandon.

Owing to its ability to make users energetic and happy, Captagon is known to have also become a popular recreational drug in the wider region.

Since Saudi Arabia’s customs authorities thwarted an attempt in April to smuggle more than five million Captagon pills from Lebanon into the Kingdom, hidden inside a shipment of pomegranates, officials say criminal syndicates have become even more “brazen.”

It was after this consignment of Captagon was discovered that Saudi Arabia suspended shipments of Lebanese fruit and vegetables entering the Kingdom or transiting through its territory.




Saudi Arabia’s customs authorities thwarted an attempt in April to smuggle more than five million Captagon pills from Lebanon into the Kingdom, hidden inside a shipment of pomegranates. (SPA)

At the time, Lebanese authorities said “the drug-stuffed shipment entered Lebanon from Syria and was repackaged in an area of the Bekaa Valley before being shipped to the port of Jeddah.”

Two Syrian brothers were arrested in Lebanon soon after the discovery, accused of repackaging the shipment at an abandoned warehouse in Bekaa. But even this major bust was not enough to put the smugglers out of business.

On June 15, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) thwarted another attempt to smuggle 37.2 kg of Captagon pills into Saudi Arabia via Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, hidden inside a consignment of electric water pumps.

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Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy.’ Click here for more.

Three people were arrested, including the alleged ringleader, a stateless person with a history of drug smuggling, along with a Syrian and a Lebanese.

The trio reportedly confessed to setting up a smuggling network and claimed they had received the shipment from Syria before transporting it to Beirut.

The ISF’s best efforts, though, were not enough. Saudi authorities at the port of Jeddah announced another major drug bust on June 26, seizing an estimated 14 million Captagon pills hidden inside iron plates sent from Lebanon.




Saudi officials say criminal syndicates have become even more “brazen” in their attempts to smuggle drugs. (SPA/File Photo)

Mohammed Al-Nujaidi, spokesperson for the Kingdom’s General Directorate of Narcotics Control, confirmed the arrest of a Saudi citizen in the Riyadh area in connection with the shipment.

On June 29, Lebanese authorities seized another haul of Captagon pills also destined for Saudi Arabia. In a statement, the ISF said 17.4 kg, the equivalent of 100,000 pills, were seized. “They were expertly hidden inside medical equipment sterilization machines,” the statement added. Two Lebanese and one Syrian national were reportedly arrested.

In July 2020, Italian police and customs agents at the port of Salerno found 84 million Captagon tablets in shipping trailers that appeared to contain only paper rolls.

Intelligence officials concluded the drugs, worth an estimated $1.1 billion, originated in factories located in parts of Syria controlled by President Bashar Assad’s government.

“The amphetamines departed Syria from Latakia, a coastal city with dedicated Iranian port facilities and a known hub for smuggling operations by Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah,” the Washington Post said.




In July 2020, Italian police and customs agents at the port of Salerno found 84 million Captagon tablets in shipping trailers that appeared to contain only paper rolls. (AFP/Guardia di Finanza Handout/File Photo)

Hezbollah strenuously denies the charge that it is involved in drug trafficking, but the Post report quoted US and Middle East analysts as saying: “Facing extreme financial pressures because of US sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and Lebanon’s economic collapse, Hezbollah appears to be growing increasingly reliant on criminal enterprises, including drug smuggling, to finance its operations.”

Hatem Madi, a former Lebanese public prosecutor, told Arab News: “The Captagon pill trade became active because it is easier to smuggle, and faster.

“It is subject to supply and demand. There is no doubt that the war in Syria has left the door open for smugglers and drug traffickers.”

Indeed, Lebanon has become a major conduit for smuggling of Captagon pills manufactured in Syria. Even before the country’s descent into civil war in 2011, its territory was used by Lebanese militias to cultivate and smuggle marijuana, generating millions of dollars.

“Captagon is manufactured in Syria, especially in the regions of Homs and Aleppo,” Brig. Gen. Anwar Yahya, a former head of Lebanon’s judicial police, told Arab News.

“In light of the events taking place in Syria, some of the factories have relocated to the villages found between Lebanon and Syria on the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range and in the areas of Qusair and Tufail.”




The Italian-seized drugs, in the form of 84 million Captagon tablets, were worth about €1 billion, police said in a statement, describing the operation as "the biggest seizure of amphetamines in the world." (AFP/Guardia di Finanza Handout/File Photo)

Western intelligence analysts claim Hezbollah operatives began manufacturing Captagon more than a decade ago but the drug began to gain prominence in tandem with the militia’s expanding commitments in Middle East conflicts.

“Is Hezbollah involved in manufacturing Captagon pills? This issue requires a judicial or security source,” Yahya told Arab News.

“However, the judiciary in Lebanon is silent. Is it out of fear or is the judiciary hiding something? I have no idea, but we are aware of the investigations and know who is involved.”

What is beyond doubt is that the Bekaa Valley, bordering Syria, is a Hezbollah hotbed. It has training camps in the region’s highlands and controls its own border crossings with Syria, where it has intervened in support of the Assad regime.

The most prominent person to be arrested by Lebanese authorities in Bekaa in connection with Captagon is Hassan Daqou. Dubbed the “King of Captagon,” Daqou had several business interests in Tufail, a town that overlaps the border with Syria and is controlled by Hezbollah.

However, following a local land dispute, Daqou was turned over to the Lebanese army, accused of establishing a Captagon laboratory in the area and overseeing a smuggling network sending pills to Greece and Saudi Arabia.

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“Daqou has ties with Hezbollah and the Fourth Division, which is headed by Maher Assad, the Syrian president’s brother,” Mohammed Al-Hujairi, a Future Movement MP, told Arab News.

Since the beginning of 2020, counterfeit Captagon and other illicit drugs have been seized in Egypt, Greece and Jordan besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Italy. Western law enforcement officials have specifically linked Hezbollah to drug seizures from the Syria-Jordan border to central and southern Europe.

But what interest might Hezbollah have in the production and trafficking of drugs?

“There are unusual smugglers that have a political or ideological background,” Ashraf Rifi, a former ISF director general who later served as Lebanon’s justice minister, told Arab News. “They do not work according to profit or loss considerations. Instead, they have political goals, namely targeting the opponent’s society.”

US and European drug agencies are convinced that Hezbollah profits from the drug trade. Europol issued a report in 2020 cautioning that Hezbollah members were using European cities as a base for trading in “drugs and diamonds” and to launder the profits. In 2018, the US State Department named Hezbollah among the top five global criminal organizations.




Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)

Whether or not the drugs trade has been weaponized, it is certainly consuming a lot of the Lebanese government’s time and resources. According to one security source, measures taken by the security forces in recent years have led to the arrest of over 15,000 people.

Rifi said there had been seizures “unprecedented in the history of Interpol in regards to the quantities of narcotics being smuggled and the level of brazenness when it comes to smuggling and targeting.

“There is a partnership between Hezbollah and the Syrian side in terms of manufacturing and smuggling, while smuggling may also be undertaken unilaterally by one of the sides,” he said.

“The efforts aimed at countering drug smuggling from Lebanon require a wise administration. A corrupt administration that is subservient to Hezbollah makes a show of addressing the problem, but it does not actually defend the people or the interests of the country,” Rifi added.

Yahya believes Lebanon’s counternarcotics unit, a badly under-resourced and poorly utilized force, is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.




A string of major drug busts in Syria and Lebanon has drawn new attention to the trade in captagon, an illegal substance that has flourished in the chaos of Syria's war. (AFP/File Photo)

“Unfortunately, the judicial police anti-drug office, which has files that date back dozens of years and include photos and fingerprints of the people and networks involved, is being sidelined,” he told Arab News.

“Instead, we see that the bodies handling these cases are the ISF Information Division, the customs, the army or people that have no jurisdiction over such issues.”

Yahya wants Lebanese authorities to tighten control along the borders, at the airport and seaports; equip border control personnel with scanners; activate the work of the anti-drug office and provide it with the necessary tools and staff.

More broadly, Lebanon must address its economic collapse and its ability to support its security personnel, who need to provide for their families.

“The delay in the government’s formation,” he said, “is a major, and possibly the main, obstacle standing in the way of activating the security apparatus and the role of the army.”


Deal signed to expand Russian presence in Suez Canal Economic Zone

Under the deal, the Russian zone will be extended to East Port Said and Ain Sokhna over an area of 5 million square meters. (Reuters/File Photo)
Under the deal, the Russian zone will be extended to East Port Said and Ain Sokhna over an area of 5 million square meters. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 17 min 29 sec ago

Deal signed to expand Russian presence in Suez Canal Economic Zone

Under the deal, the Russian zone will be extended to East Port Said and Ain Sokhna over an area of 5 million square meters. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • he SCZone chief said that work is scheduled to begin in the Russian zone by the end of 2021

CAIRO: Yehia Zaki, head of the General Authority for the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone), announced on Thursday the success of talks with Russia to expand Moscow’s industrial zone within the SCZone.

An agreement was signed by Zaki and Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade of Vasiliy Osmakov in Moscow after two days of negotiations.

Zaki said the final agreement is expected to be signed before the end of 2021 after an anticipated visit in August by a high-level Russian delegation to tour the new sites in the SCZone.

Under the deal, the Russian zone will be extended to East Port Said and Ain Sokhna over an area of 5 million square meters, Zaki said.

The first phase of the project will include an extension of 1 million square meters in East Port Said and 500,000 square meters in Ain Sokhna, he added.

The SCZone chief said that work is scheduled to begin in the Russian zone by the end of 2021 after signing the final contract.

Osmakov said the Egyptian delegation’s visit to Russia gave impetus to the project.

He said the expansion of the Russian zone will allow the entry of more Russian companies, adding that the SCZone is a window to Africa and the wider world due to its strategic location.

In September visits from Russian companies, businessmen and investors — who have expressed their desire to invest in Ain Sukhna — will take place.

The SCZone delegation held meetings in Moscow with major Russian manufacturers of vehicles, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals.


Tunisia’s Ennahda puts off party meeting amid crisis

On Saturday Ghannouchi postponed a meeting of its Choura Council, the party's highest internal authority, shortly before it was due to take place. (Reuters/File Photo)
On Saturday Ghannouchi postponed a meeting of its Choura Council, the party's highest internal authority, shortly before it was due to take place. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 33 min 24 sec ago

Tunisia’s Ennahda puts off party meeting amid crisis

On Saturday Ghannouchi postponed a meeting of its Choura Council, the party's highest internal authority, shortly before it was due to take place. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Dozens of younger party members and some leaders called on Ghannouchi to resign

TUNIS: The head of Tunisia's biggest party, Ennahda, on Saturday postponed a meeting of its highest council after senior members called for his resignation over his handling of the political crisis, party sources said.

Rached Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, has played a central role in Tunisia's democratic crisis this week after President Kais Saied seized executive authority.

The moves have caused the biggest crisis in Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy.

Saied's moves, which also included freezing parliament and dismissing the prime minister, have also thrown Ennahda into turmoil, leading to recriminations within the party over its strategy and leadership.

The party has been the most consistently powerful in Tunisia since the revolution, playing a role in backing successive coalition governments and has lost support as the economy stagnated and public services declined.

On Saturday Ghannouchi postponed a meeting of its Choura Council, the party's highest internal authority, shortly before it was due to take place, three party sources said.

Dozens of younger party members and some of its leaders including Samir Dilou, a parliament member, had called on Ghannouchi to resign, the sources said.

Ghannouchi has led Ennahda for decades, including from exile in Britain before the revolution, after which he returned to a tumultuous welcome at Tunis airport. He stood for election for the first time in 2019, winning a parliament seat and becoming speaker. 


Yemen violence increases as Houthis reject truce calls

A Yemeni government fighter fires a vehicle-mounted weapon at a frontline position during fighting against Houthi fighters in Marib. (REUTERS file photo)
A Yemeni government fighter fires a vehicle-mounted weapon at a frontline position during fighting against Houthi fighters in Marib. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 31 July 2021

Yemen violence increases as Houthis reject truce calls

A Yemeni government fighter fires a vehicle-mounted weapon at a frontline position during fighting against Houthi fighters in Marib. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The Houthi military escalation came as the US rebuked the group for attacking Marib and rejecting peace efforts to end the war

ALEXANDRIA: Violence increased in Yemen during the weekend as the Houthis rejected calls to stop hostilities and comply with peace initiatives.

Dozens of combatants, including a government commander, were killed in the past 48 hours in fighting between troops and the Houthis in the provinces of Marib, Lahj, Shabwa and Al-Bayda with the Houthis scaling up their attacks on government-controlled areas.

The heaviest fighting was reported in Marib, where forces foiled the militia’s attacks in areas outside the city of Marib and claimed limited gains in Al-Rahabah district.

Yemen’s army on Saturday mourned the death of Brig. Abad Ahmed Al-Hulaisi Al-Muradi, who was killed while fighting the Houthis in contested areas south of Marib city.

The Houthi military escalation came as the US rebuked the group for attacking Marib and rejecting peace efforts to end the war.

Commenting on the visit of US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking to Saudi Arabia, the US Department of State said on Friday: “During this trip, Lenderking called for an end to the stalemated fighting in Marib and across Yemen, which have only increased the suffering of the Yemeni people. He expressed concern that the Houthis continue to refuse to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and political talks.”

Muin Shreim, acting UN special envoy for Yemen, who also concluded a brief visit to Riyadh on Friday, urged parties to stop military operations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and resume talks under a UN-brokered peace plan. “This is key to reduce threats to civilians, alleviate the dire humanitarian situation and pave the way for a sustainable, comprehensive and just peace and for reconciliation and recovery in Yemen,” Shreim said.

One expert said the Houthis had intensified their operations to seize control of new areas and improve their bargaining position.

“The Houthis responded to the UN and international initiatives and movement by expanding (militarily) in order to get more points of strength and impose facts on the grounds,” Ali Al-Fakih, editor of Al-Masdar Online, told Arab News.

Diplomatic efforts to end the war had, he said, experienced a “feeling of disappointment” because the Houthis had rejected peace initiatives from the UN and Saudi Arabia, while also snubbing the former UN Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, the US envoy, and Omani mediators.

Yemeni political analyst Saleh Al-Baydani said the Houthis sought to assert full control of the northern half of the country, arguing that simultaneous military and international diplomatic pressure on the Houthis would force them into accepting a peace plan and stopping hostilities.

“Forcing the Houthis to comply with the option of peace can only be achieved through two parallel tracks,” he told Arab News. “The first is mounting military pressure on the ground and the second is applying real international pressures that go beyond condemnations and statements.”

The Houthis have also exploited the government's focus on defending Marib city, its last major stronghold in the north, and leaving other provinces unprotected and vulnerable to the group’s attacks, according to analysts.

Al-Fakih said the Houthis intensified their activity in Lahj, Shabwa and Al-Bayda after failing to make a military breakthrough during their offensive on Marib city, adding that more aggressive and unified strikes against their military targets and drying up their financial sources would help to push them into accepting peace.

Najeeb Ghallab, the undersecretary at Yemen’s Information Ministry and a political analyst, said the group’s ideological leaders who believed they had “a mandate from heaven to rule Yemen, and those who enriched themselves during the war” would resist any move to end the war.

“The Houthi group is convinced that any path to peace in Yemen represents a threat to it. The war extends their rule of areas under their control,” Ghallab said.


Deadly attack on Kurdish family sparks public anger

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces participates in a demonstration in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli against threats from Turkey. (AFP file photo)
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces participates in a demonstration in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli against threats from Turkey. (AFP file photo)
Updated 31 July 2021

Deadly attack on Kurdish family sparks public anger

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces participates in a demonstration in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli against threats from Turkey. (AFP file photo)
  • Similar attacks against Kurds have seen an uptick recently with cases in the provinces of Afyon, Konya and the Turkish capital Ankara

ANKARA: Seven people from a Kurdish family, including three women, were shot dead by armed assailants in the central Anatolian province of Konya on Friday.

The attackers also set the house alight after the daytime massacre.

“We warned the authorities several times,” the family’s attorney Abdurrahman Karabulut tweeted on July 30.

They had been living in Konya for 24 years and were attacked by 60 ultranationalists in May, with four family members grievously wounded by knives, stones and sticks. They were told they would no longer be allowed to live in that district.

Following the May attack, 10 people were detained and seven of them were taken into custody. But many were released.

The Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği) has been following the case for months and was informed that the family members were being harassed. IHD chair Eren Keskin tweeted: “They murdered the family they previously attacked.”

Authorities knew the family were at risk and failed to protect them, Human Rights Watch Turkey director Emma Sinclair-Webb said.

Violence against Kurds has sparked public anger over the past few months. The assaults are believed to be the result of political polarization in the country, where the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been threatened with closure and hundreds of its politicians have been slapped with a five-year ban.

During an armed assault on the HDP’s office in the western province of Izmir in June, a female party staff member was killed.

Similar attacks against Kurds have seen an uptick recently with cases in the provinces of Afyon, Konya and the Turkish capital Ankara.

Far-right and pro-government media have been fueling conspiracy theories against the HDP with an increasingly hateful and racist discourse against Kurds.

Although witnesses said the attack was racially motivated, authorities rejected this allegation and said the investigation was ongoing and so far without any connection to their Kurdish origin.

Yaşar Dedeogullari, one of the victims, said back in May that the family was attacked because they were Kurds.

“We are nationalists, you are Kurds, we will get you out of here, this is what they have been saying for 12 years, we will not let Kurds live here,” he said.

In a joint statement, 48 bar associations across Turkey recently criticized the pro-government daily Yeni Safak for targeting the 15 bar associations that had condemned the attacks on Kurds.

A Yeni Safak headline read “Barons of Qandil” - a reference to the headquarters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the northern Iraqi mountains.

“We received news of a terrible massacre from Konya. Since the subject is very sensitive, I did not want to talk before the details were clarified. Our delegation is currently in the region. Findings will be shared,” the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party tweeted.

“Our most valuable asset is the Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood. I know that our country faces several problems, but our hearts are together. I call out to the gangs who make the mistake of considering themselves as the deep state: We will definitely not allow your efforts to disrupt the brotherhood of our people!” he added.


From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 31 July 2021

From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
  • North African states are seeing varying degrees of success at containing the coronavirus amid a devastating third wave 
  • Slow vaccine rollouts, lockdown fatigue and the spreading Delta variant stretch health systems and economies to the limit 

DUBAI: First identified in India, the highly transmissible coronavirus delta variant has since been detected in around 100 countries, prompting new waves of infections, travel restrictions and concerns over the effectiveness of vaccines.

One region that has been especially hard hit is North Africa, where the economic havoc caused by lockdowns has forced governments to reluctantly reopen borders and businesses despite the slow pace of inoculation.

Tunisia, with a population of 11.69 million, has reported 582,638 infections and 19,336 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, making it one of the worst-hit nations in Africa, alongside Namibia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.

The collapse of the health system and severe economic hardship triggered mass protests that in turn have plunged the country into a political crisis.

War-ravaged Libya has also witnessed an alarming surge of COVID-19 cases over the past month. Because of its two centers of political power with parallel institutions, its response and vaccination rollout have been disjointed and sluggish.

The country’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) recorded 3,845 new COVID-19 cases on July 25 — at that time the highest daily rate since the onset of the pandemic.

Libya has recorded roughly 246,200 cases and 3,469 deaths, but the true figure is likely far higher given the country’s acute shortage of tests and laboratory capacity.

“We are alarmed at the rapid spread of the virus in the country,” AbdulKadir Musse, UNICEF Special Representative in Libya, said in a statement.

A Moroccan municipal worker disinfects outside a house in a closed street in the southern port city of Safi on June 9, 2020 after Moroccan authorities declared a total lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)

“The vaccination rate is very low, and the spread is fast. We must be quicker in our response. The most important thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the variants, is ensure everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated.

“Countries with high coverage of two doses of vaccines have been able to drastically reduce the rate of hospitalization and deaths. We also need to follow and abide by preventive measures.”

Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October 2020, but was only labeled a “variant of concern” (VOC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 11 this year.

The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November 2020.

READ MORE

Arab countries of North Africa have particularly felt the economic pain of the coronavirus crisis. Find out why here.

In many countries, including the UK, delta has now become the dominant strain. Although it is thought to cause more severe symptoms than its ancestor variants, placing additional strain on health services, there is currently not enough data to suggest it is more deadly.

More encouraging is the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.

This is all good for countries with high rates of vaccination such as the UK. But for countries in the developing world, including the Arab states of North Africa, the slow rollout of vaccines means there is limited protection against the virus.

Delta is taking a terrible toll in these countries, leaving hospitals overburdened and mortuaries short of space.

Africa as a whole recently recorded a 43 percent week-on-week rise in COVID-19 deaths. Hospital admissions have increased rapidly and countries face shortages of oxygen and ICU beds.

A mask-clad worker measures the body temperature of incoming Muslim worshippers arriving for prayers at the Hasan II mosque, one of the largest in the African continent, in Morocco's Casablanca. (AFP/File Photo)

According to the WHO, the continent has vaccinated around 52 million people since the start of the rollout in March and only 18 million are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5 percent of the continent’s population compared with more than 50 percent in some high-income countries.

South Africa, with its population of almost 60 million, has recorded 2,422,151 cases and 71,431 deaths since the pandemic began. Based on deaths per head of the population, Tunisia tops the region.

However, the picture is not uniform across the region. To date, 1.63 percent of Egyptians and 1.68 percent of Algerians have been fully vaccinated, compared with 27.68 percent of Moroccans, and 8.24 percent of Tunisians. Just 0.43 percent of Sudanese have received two doses, while data for Libya is unavailable.

“Different countries have different epidemiological situations, so we can’t generalize all of North Africa,” Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at the WHO regional office in Cairo, told Arab News.

Some countries have “really invested so much in vaccination and this is paying off,” while other countries have focused on enforcing public-health measures to slow the spread of the virus, he said.

“I think Morocco has really made a great investment and progress on administering more people with the vaccine compared to a number of other countries. And the cases you see are actually very minimal compared to previous waves, so I wouldn’t worry much about Morocco,” Abubakar said.

People queue as they arrive outside a make-shift COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination and testing centre erected at the Martyrs' Square of Libya's capital Tripoli on July 24, 2021. (AFP)

Nevertheless, cases in Morocco have been steadily increasing since mid-May, prompting the government to announce an extension of its state of emergency until Aug. 10.

Having already inoculated older age groups, Moroccan health authorities are now offering vaccines to people over the age of 30. But compliance with social-distancing and other hygiene regulations appears to be slipping.

“In Casablanca, I saw many people wearing masks but without adhering to other physical and social-distancing measures,” said Um Ahmad, who recently returned to Dubai following a family visit.

“I saw crowds on the streets and in markets as usual. And when I visited Fez, I saw people living normally with no precautionary actions whatsoever. I even asked my relative ‘are we on a different planet?’”

A Tunisian woman infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus receives oxygen at the Ibn al-Jazzar hospital in the east-central city of Kairouan. (AFP/File Photo)

In Algeria, which decided to close its borders to curb the spread of the delta variant, there is another more pressing problem — a shortage of oxygen in its hospitals to treat the seriously ill, forcing the government to establish a special unit to supervise the distribution of oxygen cylinders.

Egypt has reported a recent decline in the number of COVID-19 cases, with officials recording less than 70 new infections and less than 10 deaths per day. The country has even started sending its surplus medical kits to Tunisia.

But here too, public compliance with social-distancing measures leaves much to be desired. Eman Amir, an Egyptian working in Dubai who traveled to Cairo in May to visit her ailing mother, said she was shocked by the public’s relaxed attitude toward virus containment.

“Those who don’t care whether they die of coronavirus are those who feel they have little to lose given their already precarious existence,” she told Arab News, referring to contract and informal-sector workers most affected by pandemic restrictions.

In neighboring Sudan, cases are surging, particularly in the eastern city of Port Sudan, capital of the Red Sea State.

Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. (Supplied)

Dr. Ahmed Dreyer, the state’s director of the Emergency and Epidemic Control Department, has urged authorities to impose a three-week lockdown — known in policy circles as a circuit breaker — to help contain the spread of the delta variant.

Hana, a young Sudanese woman who lives with her family in Dubai, says many people back home are still not convinced the coronavirus even exists — the product, it would seem, of widespread misinformation.

“People have enough problems to worry about,” Hana said. “They don’t want to add to them and worry about the pandemic.

“They try to lead normal lives, by earning their livelihood and putting bread on the table.” 

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi