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)
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Updated 01 August 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 delta variant of the coronavirus 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 forced governments to reluctantly reopen borders and businesses in recent months 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.

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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


Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’

Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’
Updated 16 September 2021

Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’

Iran dismisses IAEA’s work as ‘unprofessional’

VIENNA: Iran on Thursday dismissed the UN nuclear watchdog’s work as “unprofessional” and “unfair” shortly before the two sides are due to hold talks aimed at resolving a standoff over the origin of uranium particles found at old but undeclared sites in Iran.
The issue is a thorn in the side of both Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since the particles suggest Iran once had undeclared nuclear material at three different locations, but the IAEA has yet to obtain satisfactory answers from Iran on how the material got there or where it went.
“The statement of the Agency in its report is completely unprofessional, illusory and unfair,” Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, said in a statement to a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors.
Gharibabadi was referring to a passage in an IAEA report last week that said the lack of progress was seriously affecting the IAEA’s ability to determine that Iran’s program is entirely peaceful, as Tehran says it is.
Failure to resolve the issue complicates efforts to restart talks aimed at bringing the US and Iran fully back into the fold of the 2015 nuclear deal, since Washington and its allies continue to pressure Iran to give the IAEA answers.


Jawaher AlMheiri has a message for young Arabs: Be courageous, pursue your dreams, grab every opportunity

Jawaher AlMheiri has a message for young Arabs: Be courageous, pursue your dreams, grab every opportunity
Updated 17 September 2021

Jawaher AlMheiri has a message for young Arabs: Be courageous, pursue your dreams, grab every opportunity

Jawaher AlMheiri has a message for young Arabs: Be courageous, pursue your dreams, grab every opportunity
  • Jawaher AlMheiri embodies the spirit of a Middle East generation that seems ready to shape its own destiny
  • She has earned a place in the “impact” category of this year’s 30 Under 30 list of Forbes Middle East

DUBAI: The example set by young Emirati woman Jawaher AlMheiri is an inspirational one, if perhaps a little intimidating. She speaks six languages, has a bachelor’s degree in aviation management, a post-graduate diploma in diplomacy and is adept at statistical optimization — all by the age of 28.

This month she saw off competition from 300 other candidates to earn a place in the “impact” category of this year’s 30 Under 30 list published by Forbes Middle East, which recognizes the achievements of young people from the region and their great potential to help shape the future.

Her inclusion highlights the fact that she is an outstanding example of the talented young Arabs, many of them women, who are changing the face of their region and breaking new ground as they increasingly take control of their own destinies.

She is following in the footsteps of other pioneering Arab women such as 42-year-old Razan Khalifa Al-Mubarak, the managing director of both Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Earlier this month, Al-Mubarak was elected president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one of the largest and best-known conservation bodies in the world. She is only the second woman to lead the institution in its 73-year history, and the first Arab woman.

AlMheiri’s advice to Arab young bloods is that they believe in themselves and their abilities, have the courage to pursue their dreams and grab the opportunities that come their way. (AFP/File Photo)

AlMheiri has similar ambitions to make a difference in the world, and a message for all young women in the region: Have the courage to pursue your dreams and grab the opportunities that come your way.

Her journey began at the age of 18 when she started dedicating her days to studying for a bachelor’s degree in aviation management at Emirates Aviation University in Dubai, and her evenings to a part-time job in finance at Al Ansari Exchange.

“My job was different to my major because it was the only available option,” AlMheiri told Arab News. “But it was a good field and I wanted to keep up with being independent given that my studies were not very cheap.

“I knew my parents would do their best and cover my expenses but I felt very responsible to not become an additional burden on them — I have eight siblings and they had to take care of their education.”

She was making just Dh4,000 ($1,100) a month but was pleased to be earning a wage by the age of 18. Her ambition and drive set her apart from many of her peers, shaping her personality, her thoughts and her behavior.

“I became more mature,” said AlMheiri. “I wanted to keep learning and I knew that if I started my career at an early age it would definitely pay off later.”

Salwa's Shorouq Basha (R) competes for the ball with al-Qadeseyya's Shorouq Salem, during the 3rd women futsal league, at the Kuwait Sports Club in Kuwait City. (AFP/File Photo)

After graduating at the age of 21 she joined the engineering center of Emirates Airline as a business-development specialist, where she gained valuable experience. Her daily tasks included the development and interpretation of scenarios to support maintenance facilities, providing support to management and helping to shape strategic policies.

“I was very much into using applied statistical methods, which was very different to the theory I learned at university,” she said. “I worked with optimization methods to interpret scenarios and I truly enjoyed it.”

AlMheiri continued to gain experience and learn and, three years later, her professional interest shifted toward international affairs and diplomacy. A year earlier, while still working full time for Emirates, she had been appointed to Dubai Youth Council, and as part of her duties she represented local young people in front of the nation’s leaders, and at international events.

“I felt this was something I enjoyed and I would want to have a career out of it,” she said.

In the months that followed she represented the UAE at events overseas on several occasions, most notably at the UN Youth Assembly in New York, and at the Asian Youth Assembly of the Malaysia Urban Forum. The experience she gained at such gatherings gave her the confidence to pursue a career in diplomacy.

In 2017 AlMheiri successfully applied for a job as a junior diplomat at the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and began studying for a post-graduate diploma at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi.

FASTFACTS

* The men and women on Forbes Middle East’s 30 Under 30 list have demonstrated considerable achievements and great potential for the future.

* They are inspiring younger and older generations, bringing their ideas to life, and proving that decades of experience are not needed to make a difference.

* The 2021 list features 38 individuals from 20 nationalities, who are based across 11 countries in the Middle East.

She quickly began to climb the career ladder at the ministry and became a senior economic specialist in charge of the UAE-US economic file. In September last year she was promoted again and became head of the Asian economic affairs section.

“My role is about promoting and facilitating economic interests, organizing economic platforms, and researching key issues impacting the UAE’s economic and trade relations,” AlMheiri said. “And because it’s a senior position, I also have to supervise and support my fellow diplomats.”

Her dreams and ambitions, and determination to further her personal development, do not end there. This month, she began a paid sabbatical during which she will undertake two years of study for a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University in New York, with a focus on international finance and economic policy.

“I took this bold step because I never expected to be associated with one of the Ivy League universities,” she said. “It was something in my mind because, in our nation, nothing is impossible — but I was under the impression that I would have to be a graduate of an Ivy League university (to be accepted for postgraduate studies).

“But what I am living at the moment proves that this point of view is wrong; I am here and I am motivating people to pursue their education and to try to join these universities.”

Saudi women walk past a mural painting showing King Salman on Tahliya street in the capital Riyadh. (AFP/File Photo)

AlMheiri said she was not intimidated by the notion that only certain types of people can enroll in such elite universities. She trusted herself and her abilities when she took the step to apply for a place at one of them and accept the challenge of improving herself, intellectually.

“I want to make the best out of this experience,” she said. “What pushed me is the support I received from work.”

Columbia awarded AlMheiri a fellowship that covers 70 percent of her tuition fees. The UAE Ministry of Education covered the remaining 30 percent, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation continues to pay her salary while she studies.

The announcement last week that Forbes has recognized her professional achievements by awarding her a place on its 30 Under 30 list, is testament to her success at building a successful career at a young age and her growing responsibilities.

“Now, I am not just responsible for representing myself or my family, it’s the region itself,” she said. “So, I have to make sure people in the region are inspired and I am representing them.”

AlMheiri spoke of the overwhelming support for female empowerment she has felt from leaders in the UAE, and across the Gulf, which is enabling growing numbers of young people to pursue their dreams in ways that can make themselves — and their countries and region — proud.

UAE astronaut Nora Al-Matrooshi looks on during a press conference in Dubai on July 7, 2021, she is the first Arab woman to start training to be an astronaut. (AFP/File Photo)

“I see all of this as a token of us giving back to our nations,” AlMheiri said. “They made sure we received the right education, support and recognition, so whenever these kinds of opportunities are presented, I personally make sure I try my luck and I am grateful things are working out in a very beautiful way. I feel I am working toward the right thing.”

AlMheiri’s advice to Arab young bloods is that they believe in themselves and their abilities, have the courage to pursue their dreams and grab the opportunities that come their way.

“I was one of those people who had to learn to trust myself in pursuing my dreams and achieving what I wished to achieve,” she said. “Don’t undermine yourself. Even if it’s a small thing, you should go for it. The region has a lot of talent under the age of 30.

“We’re all young, we have the energy, and if we come together with the same mindset and the same energy, we can really make the changes that we would like to see in the world.”


Yemen president renews support to UN-led effort to end war in Yemen 

Yemen president renews support to UN-led effort to end war in Yemen 
Updated 16 September 2021

Yemen president renews support to UN-led effort to end war in Yemen 

Yemen president renews support to UN-led effort to end war in Yemen 
  • Hadi meets with new UN special envoy as clashes continue to erupt around Marib city
  • The Houthis have been aggressively pushing since February to take control of the gas-rich city of Marib

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s president reiterated his government’s support to the current UN-led peace efforts to end the war and accused the Iran-backed Houthis and Tehran of intensifying the suffering of the Yemenis through their military escalation. 

During his first meeting with the UN’s new special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi urged the international community to put an end to the threats to maritime navigation in the Red Sea posed by the Houthis, who have planted naval mines.

The president also urged the militia to cease the shelling of vital civilian facilities such as Mocha port and their resistance to maintaining the floating oil tanker SAFER. 

“Peace is our choice and we will always be advocates of peace and harmony as it is a life choice for our people and for humanity as a whole,” Hadi told the UN envoy, according to the official news agency SABA.

Grundberg’s push to revive peace efforts comes as dozens of combatants, including a field government military leader, were killed in fierce clashes between Houthis and government troops in Yemen’s central province of Al- Bayda, residents and local military officials told Arab News on Thursday. 

The fighting broke out over the last 24 hours when the Houthis renewed their push in the central province, making gains on the ground in Al-Souma district, triggering heavy clashes that left dozens dead.

Col. Ahmed Al- Damani, a government military commander, and many others were killed in an area north of Mukayras as they were fighting off Houthi attacks in Al-Bayda. 

As the Houthis were fighting their way into Al-Bayda’s borders with the southern provinces, such as Abyan and Shabwa, the army on Thursday dispatched tanks, armed vehicles and soldiers to the battlefields to stop the Houthi advances. 

Flatbed trucks carrying tanks and military vehicles carrying soldiers were seen leaving military bases in Shabwa and Abyan and heading to flashpoint sites north of Lowder town in Abyan. Warplanes from the Arab coalition carried out several air raids, targeting Houthi military gatherings in Al-Bayda.

Residents in Lowder said on Thursday that a large explosion shook the town after a missile fired by the Houthis exploded inside a military base, causing damage to buildings. 

No one was reportedly hurt in the missile strike. 

The Houthi escalation in Al-Bayda comes after the militia suffered heavy casualties and a series of defeats during their deadly offensive on the central city of Marib.  

Yemen’s Defense Ministry on Thursday said that government troops engaged in heavy battles with the Houthis west of Marib. 

Yemen army commanders believe that hundreds of Houthis have been killed in deadly clashes in the province of Marib this month.

The Houthis, who militarily took power in Yemen in late 2014, have been aggressively pushing since February to take control of the gas-rich city of Marib, the government’s last stronghold in the north. 

Meanwhile, violent protests in southern Yemen on Thursday subsided as local authorities deployed forces and military vehicles around key institutes and opened blocked roads. 

At least three people were killed in Aden and Al- Mukalla, the provincial capital of Hadramout, on Tuesday and Wednesday when angry protests over long power cuts, economic meltdown and plunging currency swept over the southern cities. 

Protesters blocked roads, burned tires and garbage boxes and hurled stones at security forces seeking to unblock the roads. 

Sporadic clashes between security forces and gunmen erupted in the streets of Al-Mukalla as terrified residents stayed indoors to avoid stray bullets.  

To contain the unrest, Hadramout Gov. Faraj Salmeen Al-Bahsani on Thursday announced a nighttime curfew that runs from 8p.m. to 6 a.m., and closing schools for one week. 

The Yemen riyal on Monday hit a new record low, trading at 1100 against the dollar in the government-controlled areas. 

Electricity outages have also intensified in recent months, mainly in the southern coastal cities such as Al-Mukalla and Aden, where scorching heat and humidity reached unbearable levels. 

In Al-Mukalla, protesters closed local exchange shops and tried to storm the provincial office of the Ministry of Electricity.


Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK and US express concerns about Yemen economy

Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK and US express concerns about Yemen economy
Updated 16 September 2021

Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK and US express concerns about Yemen economy

Saudi Arabia, UAE, UK and US express concerns about Yemen economy
  • The countries praised Saudi Arabia’s charitable donations to Yemen including oil derivatives
  • The four countries stressed the need for the Yemeni government to return to Aden

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the US expressed concern about Yemen’s deteriorating economy on Thursday.

The concerns stemmed from the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, the rise in food prices, and the severe impact of this on the economy and the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country.

The countries praised Saudi Arabia’s charitable donations to Yemen including oil derivatives.

They also called on the Yemeni government to take all necessary steps to start achieving economic stability, and stressed their commitment to providing economic support to the Yemeni government.

A statement issued after the Saudi, Emirati and British ambassadors to Yemen and the chargé d'affaires for the US Embassy to Yemen met, also highlighted the importance of implementing the Riyadh Agreement.

The four countries stressed the need for the Yemeni government to return to Aden, noting its effective role in overseeing future international support for economic recovery, and their commitment to a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Yemen.

They also expressed their full support for newly appointed UN special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg.


US imposes sanctions on five Al-Qaeda operatives

US imposes sanctions on five Al-Qaeda operatives
Updated 16 September 2021

US imposes sanctions on five Al-Qaeda operatives

US imposes sanctions on five Al-Qaeda operatives
  • The list included Majdi Salim, an Egyptian-born lawyer based in Turkey
  • Others were Muhammad Nasr Al-Din Al-Ghazlani and Turkish citizens Nurettin Muslihan, Cebrail Guzel and Soner Gurleyen

WASHINGTON: The United States imposed sanctions on Thursday on five Al-Qaeda supporters working out of Turkey to provide financial services and travel help to the militant group, the Treasury Department said on Thursday.
"These targeted sanctions highlight the United States’ unwavering commitment to sever financial support to Al-Qaeda," Andrea Gacki, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement.
"We will continue working with our foreign partners, including Turkey, to expose and disrupt Al-Qaeda’s financial support networks."
The list included Majdi Salim, an Egyptian-born lawyer based in Turkey, who the Treasury identified as a primary facilitator of a range of Al-Qaeda activities in Turkey.
Others were Muhammad Nasr Al-Din Al-Ghazlani, an Egyptian financial courier who used cash transfers to support Al-Qaeda and Turkish citizens Nurettin Muslihan, Cebrail Guzel and Soner Gurleyen.