This is an article from the current issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine – help us continue our work by donating £2 for a digital copy online
For a region struggling with ongoing wars, conflicts and sanctions, and the toll of perpetual economic and political instability, the spread of Covid-19 poses a major threat to the Middle East and North Africa.
The virus, which is a particular worry for those with underlying health problems, compounds the difficult living conditions of those trapped within conflict zones and subject to blockades such as Palestine, Yemen and Iran.
The economic stability of the region is also facing uncertainty as oil prices plunge and tourism is abandoned. Travel restrictions have reduced the global demand for oil. According to the IMF, oil prices have fallen by over 50 percent since the beginning of the crisis.
Iran has been hit hardest and fastest out of the region and has one of the largest number of cases in the world. As of 26 March internal travel was banned in the country as the number of cases confirmed was 27,017 with a death toll of 2,077. These figures have been questioned by health experts, according to whom the excavation of new mass graves in the city of Qom suggests a government cover-up of the true number of deaths.
The UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for US sanctions imposed on Iran to be ‘urgently re-evaluated’ to avoid the collapse of already strained health infrastructures.
The US sanctions on Iran connected to its nuclear program greatly restrict access to essential medicines and equipment such as respirators. More than 50 medics died in Iran in the first five weeks since Covid-19 was detected in the country. As the virus spread quickly, Iran temporarily released 54,000 prisoners and pardoned 10,000.
Rights groups around the world have urged for an intervention in Palestine, as Gaza contracted its first cases on 22 March.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, “the healthcare facilities in Gaza are already on the verge of collapse due to the Israeli-imposed closure on the Gaza Strip for the last 13 years, exacerbated by the repercussions of the Palestinian internal division and political bickering.”
While Israel has taken measures to release Israeli prisoners, Palestinians remain in cramped jails without charge or trial.
Yemen is another state whose debilitated infrastructure puts citizens at high risk from the threat of Covid-19. The effects of war over the past five years in Yemen have been termed ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.
Tactics particularly adopted by the Saudi-led coalition including the destruction of economic infrastructure and the obstruction of aid has led to the internal displacement of Yemenis and a quarter of a million people living in conditions of famine at the end of 2018. The country grappled with the world’s worst cholera epidemic in 2017 which led to 3,500 deaths.
On 21 March, the Houthi health minister Taha al-Mutawakel warned that 93 percent of the country’s medical equipment is out of service. Precautionary measures have been taken in the country including the closure of schools, shops, cafes and restrictions on travel, which is causing major financial loss to individuals.
In Syria, the years-long conflict has broken down health infrastructures making Syrians ‘acutely vulnerable’ to the global pandemic. The UN Special envoy for Syria called for “a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire to enable an all-out effort to suppress Covid-19,” when the country noted its first case of the virus on 24 March.
Syria relies heavily on Iranian military and infrastructural aid in Assad’s war against Sunni rebels. With Iran being one of the hardest hit nations by Covid-19, there are fears that the virus will be spread to Damascus through continuing flights from Tehran. Sectarian rifts have only been reinforced by the virus, with Sunni activists attributing it to Shi’a troops and pilgrims.
There are roughly 6 million displaced Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan because of the war. Older conflicts continue to have their toll too: there are an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran linked to the 40-year conflict.
Asylum seekers waiting at European port cities like Calais also face the compounding effects of the virus. Many face abandonment by states on top of the inability to socially distance, to maintain levels of hygiene, to treat symptoms of the disease and to bury those that have died. On top of this, aid relief NGOs are having to restrict their provisions of support.
Juliette Delapace, from Caritas in northern France said, “Before, it was politically expedient for the state to deny help to this community because they knew NGOs would fill the gap, but now we cannot do this because we need to protect our volunteers and staff and limit the potential spread among people who are very vulnerable and have poor health.”
In Qatar, pressures on migrant workers to continue constructing stadiums for the 2022 World cup increase as the rest of the country has been outlawed from ‘all forms of gathering’. The ‘business as usual’ model has been pushed by Qatari authorities where construction workers cannot practice social distancing.
At the same time, after a number of workers became infected with Covid-19, the largest labour camp was locked down by police, leaving thousands of workers trapped in overcrowded conditions. The number of infections in Gulf states is growing rapidly, and similarly rely upon migrant workers.
In Egypt, a number of activists including author Ahdaf Soueif staged a protest demanding the release of prisoners from the country’s overcrowded jails. Mona Seif, also involved, said: “We are in front of the cabinet, asking for the state to take serious steps regarding corona in prisons. As we know, at any time Egypt’s prisons are clusters for disease.”
The demonstrators were arrested and face possible charges of unlawful protest and illegal assembly. Al-Sisi’s government has imposed a nightly curfew throughout the country which has 456 confirmed cases at the time of writing.
Egypt’s desperately underfunded public health system struggles to provide even basic care at the best of times and will face severe stress as the virus spreads. Meanwhile as in other countries, lockdown measures are leading to huge job losses among daily paid workers.
Image by MojNews, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88164633