Anti-government protesters in Lebanon holding signs that read "You are the coronavirus, you are the epidemic" and "Humiliation, bankruptcy, looting, starving and killing the rest of us" in front of the Lebanese Ministry of Health in Beirut. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Can Arab states weather the Covid-19 storm?

April 10, 2020

Yara Younis, CCMS Research Assistant

The COVID-19 virus has taken the world by storm. Nobody, regardless of geographical locale, ethnicity or social class, is immune to the virus. News coverage has infiltrated every second of daily life, as if it would be conceivable to forget the sky-rocketing number of cases and fatalities, all the jobs lost, and the gaping question mark on institutional capabilities and policy preparedness. In a rare and uncomfortable moment, the entire human race is thinking along similar trajectories. Moreover, the current global health crisis has highlighted the systemic flaws of the neoliberal world order and its intimate relationship to human exploitation and suffering. This observation is strikingly apparent when looking at Arab news coverage on how countries in the Arab world have responded to the spread of COVID-19, where the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus are emboldening authoritarianism and human rights abuses, and in some cases, met with pure negligence. Measures to contain the virus have hurt key sectors in the Arab world, such as tourism, retail, and hospitality. Production and manufacturing have been impacting financial cycles and consumption patterns that many Arab states depend on. But, what about the people? 

Daily livelihoods in Arab states have been disrupted, leaving millions in precarious situations. From curfews to full lockdowns, various government leaders are witnessing their social construct of power and control crumbling before their eyes as they cannot begin to comprehend how to deal, let alone recover, from a pandemic on top of a pre-existing fragile state of affairs. Schools, universities, daycares, places of worship, and workplaces have all shutdown, severely impacting social dynamics in the household and beyond. From occupied Palestine and war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Iraq to the Arabian Gulf countries, the already weak economic fabric is hanging by a thread. Despite some countries being more equipped to deal with the outbreak, like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the long-term implications of the virus are a threat to regional stability. All resources are going towards providing health services, food, water, and electricity. Private sector companies have taken a huge blow, but more importantly, we must remember the workers in the shadows; the immigrant labourers such as construction workers, cleaners, grocery workers, delivery drivers, and live-in nannies who allow these countries to function and who do not have the privilege to practice social distancing as they are crammed in tiny “homes” with multiple people.

At the time of writing, there are over 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa, excluding the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the Arabian Gulf, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Initially, the neighbouring countries responded hesitantly because the governments did not want to hinder economic growth. Unsurprisingly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have implemented full lockdowns to “flatten the curve” and have allegedly threatened to arrest and publicly shame those who break lockdown protocols. The UAE has implemented a nation-wide “Disinfection Program” that supposedly sanitizes all seven emirates and has opened a “drive-through testing clinic”. Expo 2020 is expected to be postponed after rumours spread that there were two confirmed cases on its construction site, shutting down the operation for the time being. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has temporarily prevented umrah pilgrimages to the Holy city of Mecca, which is a major source of tourism revenue. The GCC countries have introduced “stimulus packages” ranging between 23 to 35 billion USD each to support small and medium enterprises but have not introduced rent relief or aid for the millions of “expatriate” owned businesses or for non-citizens who live and work there. The decrease in global oil demand is a major stressor for the oil-dependent Gulf states, which means that there needs to be more mindful allocation of resources. This has resulted in Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a potential ceasefire in Yemen to end the five-year war. 

In Egypt, a “nightly curfew” was introduced but only after fervent denial about the virus came from the al-Sisi government. Egypt’s tourism sector has been hit the hardest with approximately 80% less traffic. Libya has 21 confirmed cases and Yemen reportedly only has one suspected case. The low number of cases in the two countries could be linked to the low rates of international travel and the conflict-prone conditions. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is tightly controlling domestic media to falsely represent the veracity of the situation. Official numbers show only 19 cases in Syria but sources on the ground report that authorities are preventing medical professionals from testing or treating people showing symptoms, so it is likely that the number of cases is much higher. Resistant to state propaganda, Syrians are rushing to grocery stores and banks as they anticipate more serious measures that will shut down major cities. Some even hope that this virus could unite the socially fragmented Syrian population by mobilizing a community response if the government continues to lack transparency and preach false promises. Additionally, the growing number of cases in the Gaza strip is a cause for concern as Palestinians do not have access to testing and their supplies, which are already restricted, are unjustly being rationed by the Israeli government to treat Israeli citizens first. 

The lack of institutional infrastructure to deal with a pandemic is accurately exemplified by the Lebanese government. More than half the population are unable to afford food, rent and basic essentials, and are at risk of starvation as they have not received any benefits. Assistance is being provided by local community networks while the government is simultaneously fining people for going to public spaces. For refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, they are given “scraps of old fashioned cloth” and raw materials to make their own masks and soap bars. The “Jordanian national plan” so far has been to tighten its grip on the numerous refugee camps by increasing curfew and preventing movement. Refugee women are leading the production of masks and soap. Beyond Zaatari, not much has been reported on the refugees distributed inside the governorates of the Kingdom and the camps located on the outskirts of Amman. Those in the city have difficulty paying for rent and lack food, infant formula and medical treatments. 

In a 2020 blog series for the International Monetary Fund, Jihad Azour, who is the IMF’s director for the Middle East, stated that the Middle East is going into “Dual Shock,” calling it the “largest near-term challenge in the region.” On top of that, the IMF is urging the region’s governments to offer “temporary tax relief and cash transfer” as a lack of medical supplies could be detrimental to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Gaza strip, where unemployment is already at an all time high and basic services are not provided by governing authorities. 

Vulnerability to economic collapse because of the virus is not an exclusive condition of the above-mentioned states. The International Labour Organization predicts a “pessimistic view” where 25 million people will be unemployed globally by the end of 2020, topping the figures from the 2008 financial crisis. The ability to “bounce back” from the “Corona 2020 crisis” heavily depends on the ability of governments and international organizations in changing economic policies. The Arab states are expected to see a “loss of 8.1% in working hours”, equivalent to losing 5 million full time jobs. However, the consequences will be felt more strongly in the Arab world, where large portions of local populations are economically and politically marginalized for a variety of reasons and do not have adequate social welfare systems in place to ease the aftermath of the crisis. Moreover, it is unlikely that international audiences will hear many immigrant workers complaining about poor treatment to avoid deportation or imprisonment while also being subjected to homelessness and unemployment. 

Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs, tweeted that “Covid-19 crisis is a wake up call & should put things in perspective” and that “government leadership, capacity & efficacy is all critical regardless of ideology & system of government.” It is timely to contrast Gargash’s words against the claims of Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese officials who stated that the coronavirus is a conspiracy planted by the Trump administration to bring down the hegemonic power of China and to enact “medical terrorism”. Indeed, the virus is a wake up call but these contrasting perspectives are indicative of how each government’s response is shaped by past experiences of conflict and foreign intervention in the region. That said, this is an essential time for all governments to come face to face with the fact that their power and authority are meaningless against COVID-19. Public health and financial aid must be the first priority, requiring increased spending in national health systems and subsidy packages to financially support all who reside in their countries, whether citizens or not.