CHICAGO: COVID-19 remains a serious risk to Arab nations and the threat could escalate as the delta variant continues to spread, experts said on Wednesday.
Although many Arab countries were spared the most drastic infection rates seen elsewhere in the world during the first wave of the virus in early 2020, thanks to good health planning, the delta variant poses an even more serious threat, according to Dr. Zaher Sahloul, the president of MedGlobal, which coordinates the work of non-governmental organizations that provide healthcare to under-served populations and refugees in the Arab world, and Arab News journalist Rebecca Anne Proctor.
During a discussion on the Ray Hanania Radio Show, they highlighted Saudi Arabia and the UAE as success stories in the efforts to limit the spread of the virus, but warned that recent events, particularly in North African countries such as Tunisia, are a worrying sign that alarming rises in infection rates in some places could spread.
“The Gulf has been really on top of the game in terms of abiding by various restrictions and mask wearing and social-distancing measures,” said Proctor, who reports on the Middle East for Arab News. “We have seen that the Gulf has led the way in terms of vaccine campaigns. So I think right now we are seeing where a lot of the inequalities (are), and where the work might have been done better.
“Just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia closed its border to several countries. The UAE is now also issuing a few more restrictions, particularly over religious holidays. But where we have a big discrepancy is in various countries in North Africa, as we have seen in Tunisia, and then also in Syria, and Lebanon in particular, and Yemen — places that perhaps are not able to get access easily to (intensive care) beds, oxygen and vaccines.
“The countries that can handle this virus better, and the rise of delta, which seems to be the dominate variant … are the ones that have been able to really maintain their restrictions and have really strong vaccine campaigns.”
Perceptions of the pandemic affect how governments are responding. Many saw that infections seemed to be declining, which prompted governments to ease restrictions and created a sense of complacency.
“I would say, in general, many of the countries in the Arab world were spared … the large number of deaths and sickness because of the pandemic” in the early days, compared with the US, India and countries in Europe and Latin America, said Sahloul.
He added that some of those countries are being hit hard now, especially Tunisia but also Algeria and Morocco.
“Some countries have done very well, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. And Jordan especially,” he said. This reflects the fact that some nations prepared and reacted more effectively as the virus spread while others did not, according to Sahloul.
“Some have not done well, including North African countries, and that is why we are seeing the spread of the virus there, and in Iraq, of course,” he said.
He is concerned about the effect the delta variant will continue to have. Because it is more contagious than the original version of the virus, and appears to be more dangerous to younger people, he said it is much more of a threat and continues to spread at a time when authorities in many better-off countries have begun a return to normal life and the start of economic recovery.
“What I am worried about is that the countries that felt immune to the pandemic in the beginning, they will be hit hard now by the delta (variant) because it spreads so much more faster and also it can cause more disease among the young,” said Sahloul.
“I am afraid that countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan will be hit hard by the delta (variant) that is right now spreading in North Africa.”
The spread of this variant, which was first identified in India, is having “devastating” effects, Sahloul said. There are a number of reasons for this.
As vaccinations rates increase in some countries, authorities have started to ease some pandemic restrictions, including rules for face masks, social distancing and large gatherings.
In other countries, such as Tunisia, volatile political environments are exposing the public to COVID-19 risks, Proctor said. The problem, she added, is that when people start to see what appears to be a turning point in the pandemic, they start to take greater risks and infections start to climb again, “a bit like what has happened in Tunisia.”
“Politics plays a big role in COVID all over the world … we are seeing a lot of people that are just frustrated with being controlled — they don’t want to be controlled,” she said.
Sahloul said the challenges are compounded by the fact that many health professionals, including doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 patients, have themselves been infected.
“Doctors and healthcare workers were impacted in the same way as the general public — and even worse because, as you know, physicians and nurses are the front-line healthcare workers,” he said.
“At the beginning of the crisis we had shortages of personal protective equipment in the Arab world (especially countries that) have less means, such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Physicians in North African countries struggled to find masks, gowns, gloves and so forth.
“Hospitals were affected because of the large number of hospitalizations. There were shortages of oxygen, especially. This was the first time in my life that we were seeing this shortage of oxygen. What is killing patients in Tunisia more than anything is a shortage of oxygen.”
Sahloul said there is little official data on the number of doctors, nurses and other medics who have died as a result of the pandemic, but the numbers he has seen are “staggering.”
It was reported several months ago that more than 200 doctors had died in Yemen, he said, and there are similar reports from Syria.
“This is a tragedy because it is not easy to replace a physician, a doctor or a good nurse,” he added.
Proctor and Sahloul appeared on the July 28, 2021 edition of The Ray Hanania Radio Show, broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News. The show is broadcast live in Detroit and Washington DC on WNZK AM 690 and WDMV AM 700 radio, and is available to stream at Facebook.com/ArabNews.