COVID-19 Impact in MENA

“In just 1 week, # of #COVID19 cases in @WHOEMRO
Region has almost doubled. I can’t stress enough the urgency of the situation. We have a window of opportunity to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the Region & need to act quickly”

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World Health Organization Chief: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
presents daily update.

The World Health Organization (WHO) organizes most of the MENA region into the Eastern Mediterranean region. Similarly, the Gates Foundation, which also tracks global health issues, organizes their program operations in the same way.

With a population of 583 million people, the Eastern Mediterranean region includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Currently, the WHO-EMR division is led by Dr. Ahmed Al Mandhari, specializing in public health from the Kingdom of Oman and serving in Oman’s Ministry of Health. [Note: Algeria is excluded from WHO Eastern Mediterranean grouping. However, as a North African and Arab nation, PITAPOLICY considers Algeria as part of the PITAPOLICY platform area of concern. Here’s the COVID-19 tracking of cases we have learned from the John’s Hopkins Corona Virus Center: 1,468 cases, 193 deaths.]

Although the Americas and Europe are the worst hit by COVID-19 (Corona) virus, the Eastern Mediterranean region is not far behind: Iran hosts the third largest cases (60,000 as of April 6th) and a growing death toll (3,739 as of April 6th). The hardest-hit regional country is facing economic sanctions that compromise its public health interventions and relief. The UAE and Kuwait offered humanitarian assistance, but the sanctions have impeded access to personal protective equipment and ventilators– a challenge that New Yorkers are experiencing as well.

Impact #1: Conflict (Human Cost)

In addition to the economic and health impacts, COVID-19 exacerbates political challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Specifically, the COVID-19 exacerbates ongoing conflicts. In Iran’s case, the term “virus diplomacy” emerges in U.S. relief conversations: Exchange prisoners for a promise not to veto Iran’s $5 billion loan request to the International Monetary Fund.

In another example of COVID-19 exacerbating conflict, we look to both Yemen and Syria. Each country’s civilian populace has been pummeled by regime, rebel, and proxy supporter attacks. As refugees and internally displaced populations huddle in close-quarters within refugee camps, people remain untested as the virus spreads more quickly. COVID-19 cases remain underreported, underestimated, and untreated. Currently, PITAPOLICY is reviewing COVID-19 data in conflict countries, like Syria, for another study.

“The US embargo not only prohibits American companies and individuals from conducting lawful trade with Iranian counterparts, but given that the sanctions are extra-territorial, all other countries and companies are also bullied into refraining from doing legitimate business with Iranians, even the selling of medicines,”~

Tehran Mayor Piyouz Hananchi

Speaking of internally displaced populations, in Palestine, reports of untreated COVID-19 cases run rampant. For example, in villages like Tulkarem, Dr. Roa Qato was told laborers coming in from Israel have been exposed to COVID-19. Once one of the laborers self-reported, and he was “disappeared” within the area’s refugee camp. If in fact he was quarantined, the virus had already spread within densely populated camps where measures like “social-distancing” are a luxury.

In areas overseen by the Palestinian Authority (PA), there will be a tradeoff between virus containment and revenue generating activities. The PA has projected that its budget deficit could increase from $0.8bn to $2.4bn as a result of losses in government revenues. Lower to Middle-income countries will experience similar fiscal challenges.

Update on April 8th:

Al Jazeera English reports those living in Gaza fear COVID-19 virus outbreak will escalate. Specifically, Gazans are worried about a shortage of critical equipment and medical supplies for the resource-challenged area’s two million people, which has been blockaded by neighboring Israel.

Impacts #2 & #3: Socio-Cultural & Socio-Economic

The second and third impacts are socio-cultural as well as socio-economic. The religious pilgrimage for Muslims will not congregate the millions that congregate in Saudi Arabia. This is great from a public health standpoint, but Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry and local businesses relying on religio-tourists will suffer.

1895 was the last time the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca was suspended or canceled–about 39 other times in the last 1,400 years. The reason: a public health crisis surrounding the Typhoid and dystentary outbreak in neighboring Madinah. Given the suspension of another holy observation, Easter Sunday, it is no wonder that millions will hold off from performing Hajj in 2020–set to start July 28th this year. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cleared out both grand mosques in Mecca and Madina once the World Health Organization flagged the novel COVID-19 virus as a pandemic. Thankfully, public health officials remembered the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome death toll of 850 and spread to 17 countries outside of the Arabian Gulf. (Thanks Visual Capitalist @visualcap for the amazing visual.)

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