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Coronavirus Update: The Middle East and North Africa © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Coronavirus Update: The Middle East and North Africa

In this blogpost, LUCIS brings together short updates on the impact of COVID-19 in countries in the MENA region, written by experts on and researchers in the countries listed. New entries will be added as they arrive.

Saudi Arabia

By Khadija Kadrouch-Outmany

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported on 2 March. The Ministry of Health confirmed that a Saudi national returning from Bahrain was tested positive. By 13 May, the kingdom had 42,925 confirmed cases, with 15,257 recoveries and 264 deaths. As many as 150 members of the royal family also tested positive for the virus.

Saudi Arabia took precautionary measures in February to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the kingdom. The first of these measures was a travel ban to China, followed by a suspension of domestic flights, trains, buses, and taxis for fourteen days on 20 March.

A temporary suspension of entry for Muslims wanting to perform the umrah at the Holy Mosque in Mecca or visit the Prophet’s mosque in Medina was announced on 27 February. Three weeks later, on 20 March, Saudi Arabia suspended entry to the general public at the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina and in mosques across the country. It is not yet sure whether the hajj, which is scheduled for July, will take place.

Early on in March, all schools and educational institutions were closed, followed by amusement parks, shopping malls, and public parks, and social events were banned. With the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets, all public places had been closed by 15 March.

On 24 March a nationwide curfew was put into place, with movement restricted between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some cities have implemented a 24-hour curfew, including the cities of Mecca and Medina as of 2 April and (among others) Riyadh and Jeddah as of 6 April, with movement restricted to essential travel only, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Spreading false information about the pandemic is an offence punishable by up to 5 years in jail. In April a man was arrested who had appeared in a video circulating on social media stating allegedly false rumors about the coronavirus.

In order to shore up the finances hit hard by the low oil prices and the COVID-19 slowdown, Saudi Arabia has announced to triple its VAT from 5% to 15% and to suspend a cost-of-living allowance for state employees of 1,000 riyals a month as of 1 June. These measures were introduced after the kingdom reported a $9 billion budget deficit in the first quarter of 2020.

Yemen

By Marina de Regt

On 25 March Yemen entered the sixth year of a civil war that has turned the country into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 24 million people (out of a population of 29 million) in need of humanitarian aid and 10 million people suffering from famine.

Yemen’s healthcare sector has almost been destroyed in the past five years: only 50 per cent of the health facilities, including hospitals, is still functioning. Cholera has affected many people, as clean water is lacking, in addition to other infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. The rapid global expansion of COVID-19 was thus immediately seen as a threat to the Yemeni population.

In April the UN called on the warring parties to declare a ceasefire in order to prevent an outbreak. The Saudi Led Coalition (SLC), which is supporting the government of Yemen led by President Hadi, responded to this call and announced a ceasefire for two weeks starting on 9 April. Yet fighting continued and even escalated in various parts of the country.

The Houthis, who are controlling the northern part of Yemen, did not endorse the terms of the ceasefire and continued violent attacks, in particular in the eastern part of the country. In the meantime, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule in South Yemen, in order to diminish the power of the Hadi Government.

On 10 April the first COVID-19 patient was tested positive in the port town of Al-Shihr in the south of Yemen. The local authorities responded immediately and isolated the 60-year-old patient, who worked in the port. Nevertheless, on 29 April five new cases appeared in the city of Aden, also in South Yemen.

The fact that the country is divided between warring parties makes it more difficult to control the situation. UN Coordinator Lise Grande has called for immediate action by all parties, to enable Yemeni citizens to take the necessary precautions. The World Bank is also giving financial aid to fight COVID-19. Hospitals need to be prepared for COVID-cases, tests and protection material have to enter the country, and the public needs to be informed about the virus and how to protect themselves.

The Yemeni population is extremely worried about a possible outbreak of the pandemic, which could affect 21 million people in the worst-case scenario. Yet, social distancing and staying at home is hardly possible in a country where family networks are close-knit and many people can only make a living by going outside to sell their labour, run their shops, work in the fields, and be involved in any other activity to make ends meet in an already deplorable economic situation.

Turkey

By Onur Ada

In January 2020, the Turkish government started to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Turkey. In early February, the government imposed a travel ban to and from China. After the rapid spread of the virus, Iran and Iraq were added to the list in late February, followed by a number of European countries in mid-March. On 27 March, the government stopped international flights entirely.

The first case of coronavirus was reported on 11 March: the patient was Turkish and contracted coronavirus while travelling in Europe. After a few days, more than 10,000 Turkish citizens returned home from the pilgrimage site of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In spite of the efforts to quarantine them, these pilgrims played a significant role in passing the virus on to other residents in Turkey. The official discourse, nonetheless, focused the blame on Europe as the primary source of contagion.

As of 23 April, 98,674 people out of 750,944 tested positive for COVID-19. On 22 April, the death toll reached 2,376, with 1,814 in the intensive care. The number of infections is reportedly above the figures in the worst-hit countries such as China and Iran, whereas the confirmed number of deaths is much lower, resulting in a lack of confidence in the information made available by the Ministry of Health. The Turkish Medical Association also underscores the deficiency of the medical equipment and intensive care capacity, in sharp contrast to government claims.

After 11 March, the government took increasingly drastic measures. In late March, a curfew for people over 65 or chronically ill was declared. From 3 April on, people under 20 were also obliged to stay home. Finally, a total curfew for the weekend was announced for 31 cities late on Friday night, 10 April. This caused mayhem, as the people afraid of a much longer curfew flocked to the shops to stock up on food and water, mostly disregarding the social distancing rules.

The government also took measures to restrict the mobility of people within Turkey. In late March, they prohibited outdoors activities entirely, and permission was required for the intercity travel. After a few days, this restriction became more extensive, as the entry to the thirty metropolitan cities and Zonguldak was “temporarily” forbidden.

Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Turkish economy was in a precarious situation. The curfews are tailored to keep the economy running, a policy highly criticized by the opposition. The president initiated a donation campaign, under the banner of “We are enough for each other, my Turkey” (Biz Bize Yeteriz Türkiyem), claiming that no foreign aid is necessary. Donation campaigns and other initiatives initiated by the opposition were quickly suppressed, however, and condemned vehemently as “parallel state” activities. Instead of putting an end to the polarization in Turkish politics and society, the outbreak of the coronavirus has highlighted existing fault lines.

This is a short version of the longer blogpost United in polarization: Turkey in times of Corona

Morocco

By Samira Jadir

On 20 March 2020, Morocco declared the state of emergency. This entails that Moroccans can only go outside with a permission form handed out by local authorities. You are only allowed to leave your house for groceries, to go to a pharmacy or doctor, or for work purposes. Schools, restaurants, and hammams were already closed on 16 March. International flights have been suspended until further notice. Also, you cannot leave the house without a mask. On 18 April, this lockdown was extended for another 30 days, until 20 May. To combat the economic consequences, King Mohammed VI ordered the creation of a Special Fund for the Management and Response to COVID-19, initially comprising 10 billion MAD (Moroccan Dirham).

These preventive measures were taken so swiftly because the authorities are well aware that the Moroccan health care system is unable to cope with a large outbreak, such as those in Italy and Spain. On 20 March, 79 people had been infected and three people had died, according to the Ministry of Health. After seeing what happened in Europe, Morocco learned to take the virus seriously. The government provided these latest numbers on 19 April 2020: 2,855 people are infected with the coronavirus, 327 people have recovered, and 141 people died.

The Moroccan state tells the citizens not to panic and to be careful with “fake news.” The spreading of fake news is a punishable offense at the moment. A famous Youtuber has been sentenced to one year in jail for telling the people the virus is not real. People are also being arrested for violating the stay-at-home order. They risk a fine between 300 and 1300 MAD or even a prison sentence between one and three months. The total number of arrests currently amounts to a whopping 44,203 (19 April).

Most people understand that the preventive measures are important, although they fear that food prices will rise. Working from home was unknown in Morocco, but now some companies are allowing their employees to work remotely. Informal workers face a different problem; without income they cannot survive. People in various cities took to the streets in the first days of the lockdown, afraid that they cannot feed their families, let alone make their payments for rent and electricity. The government told them they can apply for a monthly stipend until the lockdown is over.

When the lockdown was announced, thousands of tourists were stranded in Morocco. Several countries have been allowed to repatriate their citizens. Hundreds of people with a dual nationality were not able to leave the country, however, as the state considers them Moroccan citizens.

Israel and Palestine

By Sai Englert

On this side of the Green Line…

The COVID-19 outbreak in Israel, which started in late February, has reached over 12,000 confirmed cases on 17 April 2020, with over 140 dead. The number of actual cases is likely to be even higher because of the lack of testing in Palestinian areas, where long term underfunding and state discrimination has meant a lack of effective healthcare provision for decades. For example, only about 4,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been tested so far while on average the same number of Israelis are tested daily, with recent daily test reaching as many as 10,000.

One of the reasons for the scale of the outbreak has been the reticence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government to impose a complete shutdown immediately, for both economic and political reasons.

Economically, the Netanyahu government – much like its counterparts in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands – has attempted to keep the economy running. In key Israeli industries, such as construction and agriculture, this is largely dependent on Palestinian workers from the West Bank, who were therefore set to remain in Israel for the duration of the lockdown. The deal was called off by the Palestinian Authority (PA) however, after workers suspected of infection were repeatedly dropped off at checkpoints without having received tests or medical attention.

In late March, the government announced an 80 billion Shekel (roughly 22 billion USD) economic rescue package. The money will provide increased benefits for Israelis, as nearly a quarter of the population faces unemployment – although at least half of the fund will be used to bail out big companies and financial institutions.

In addition, Netanyahu’s coalition is dependent on a continued alliance with the religious right, which opposed closing synagogues or banning gatherings of less than 10 people (the minimum necessary for collective prayers in Judaism). Mosques in Palestinian areas of the state were not met with the same leniency.

Haredi religious leaders repeatedly refused to accept lockdown measures, with many calling the outbreak a divine punishment for homosexuality. This included Israel’s Health Minister and leader of the Torah United Judaism, Yaakov Litzman, who tested positive last week. His infection has meant that several leading Israeli officials, including the head of Mossad, have had to be quarantined after having come in contact with him. In early April, the Haredi city of Bnei Brak was placed under special measure after cases there surpassed a 1,000. Haredi neighbourhoods in Jerusalem have now met the same fate also.

Netanyahu has been accused of using the COVID-19 outbreak as a lever in his ongoing bid to remain in power, after three successive elections failed to break the deadlock between himself and Benny Gantz. He used the general panic over the outbreak to pressure his opponent into accepting the possibility of a national unity government under his leadership, which in turn fractured Gantz’s coalition. Appearing as the man of the hour, Netanyahu’s approval rates have soared in the polls.

In addition, the Israeli government has moved to use phone tracking technology – a technique tried and tested by its secret services in its surveillance and control of Palestinian life – to identify who infected people have come in contact with. The decision sparked worries about civil liberties, while the efficiency of the method has been questioned.

…and that side.

Less attention, however, has been given to the way COVID-19 is intersecting with the ongoing occupation of Palestine. The consequences of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, military occupation of the West Bank (WB), and second-class citizen status of Palestinians inside the Green Line – to say nothing about Palestinian refugee camps – have been dramatic.

The PA in the West Bank, like its Hamas counterpart in the Gaza Strip, has imposed a lockdown to stop the spread of the virus. Its ability to tackle the crisis however has been seriously hampered by the ongoing military occupation. In late march, for example, Israeli soldiers destroyed an emergency field hospital set up in the Jordan valley.

In Gaza, health care workers have repeatedly sounded the alarm, demanding urgent international support. The strip is one of the most overpopulated areas in the world. After 13 years of Israel’s military blockade and three military assaults that have repeatedly targeted medical infrastructure, the two million residents of the strip are left to face the outbreak with little equipment: a grand total of 8 intensive care beds, and 63 ventilators.

In Silwan, Jerusalem, where at least 40 cases have already been confirmed, the Israeli authorities closed down a clinic. Its crime? Providing tests to Palestinians to be processed by the PA. The initiative was launched due to the lack of support received from the Israeli state. Given the overcrowded nature of the area – an outcome of Israeli settlement growth and government policy aiming at the geographical “containment” of Palestinians in Jerusalem – the danger of rapid contagion is particularly high.

In Palestine, as elsewhere, there is no “equal opportunity” in the face of disease. There is more segregation, criminal neglect, and destruction. In the words of a recent Al Shabaka report discussing COVID-19, “it is … imperative … to highlight the Israeli occupation as an instrument of comorbidity.”

Iran

By Asghar Seyed Gohrab

On 16 April 2020, the official number of coronavirus cases in Iran was 76,389, while 4,777 were reported deceased and 49,933 recovered. These numbers are questioned, however. The actual number of victims appears to be much higher than officially communicated. The virus affected several government officials, including Vice President Ma’sume Ebtekar, Vice Minister of National Health Ministry Iraj Harirchi, and at least twenty members of parliament. Also, several ayatollah died due to coronavirus.

Immediately after China, Iran suffered enormously from the coronavirus. The first outbreak of the virus was in the religious city of Qom where a group of religious students from China returned to the Shiite seminary to continue their studies. The first score of victims was reported on 19 February in Qom. It took about two weeks before the government took measures, disinfecting public places, placing placards on streets asking people not to shake hands, and not to kiss each other during greetings.

A video of a mortuary at the main cemetery in Qom shows a large number of corpses waiting for a ritual washing and preparation to be buried. This video went viral on 2 March and was swiftly distributed via social media, generating severe criticism of the Islamic Republic’s initial denial and the absence of measures necessary to fight the virus. In the video it is said that the corpses were waiting for ritual washing between five and six days, whereas in Islam, the deceased should be buried within twenty-four hours. In a recent article by the BBC, it is reported that the person who filmed this scene had been arrested. Relying on statistics from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech, the BBC reported that the death toll and the number of infections are much higher than suggested by Iranian government.

The start of the quarantine partly coincided with the celebration of the Persian New Year (Nowruz) on 20 March until 3 April. The majority of people, nonetheless, followed the government’s advice. With a shattered economy, many people cannot hold the quarantine for a long time, however. It is feared that when the quarantine period ends, a second outbreak of COVID-19 is inevitable. Under the current US sanctions and with a lack of ICU beds for a population of some 80 million people, it is hard to judge how Iran would cope with a second outbreak.

Egypt

By Ibrahim Saweros

On 13 April 2020, the Egyptian Ministry of Health announced that the total number of COVID-19 infections reached 2190, with an increase of 125 infections in the last twenty-four hours. 164 Egyptians died because of COVID-19, all of whom had been suffering from severe illnesses prior to the outbreak. 488 COVID-patients recovered and left hospitals. These official numbers include both Egyptians and tourists.

Starting from 15 March, the government shuttered schools and universities. Motivated by the increasing numbers of infections in Egypt and worldwide, it gradually implemented more severe restrictions: flights were halted, gatherings banned, and a night curfew was implemented. The president allocated EG 100 billion to support the economy and address urgent economic issues. A percentage of this amount will be used support seasonal labourers. The army pitched in by supplying medical supplements such as medical alcohol and masks. According to local media, the army produced large enough quantities to fulfill both the national demand and also support China and Italy by sending millions of masks.

Despite popular resentment voiced on social media, the government, the Coptic Church, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced the complete shutdown of churches and mosques. In a few rare cases, people tried to open houses of worship to pray, but the local police was able to resolve these issues peacefully. One of the largest incidents occurred when, out of fear for the virus, villagers in Delta tried to stop the funeral of a local female physician who had died of COVID-19. The army intervened and the next morning the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Al-Sheikh Al-Tayeb, spoke out against this.

The coming days will be more difficult for everybody. It is the Easter time for the Copts and the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. For the Egyptians, this is a special season, which involves purchasing a host of items, from new clothes to preserved food and fresh vegetables. The Egyptian government has assured the population that there are enough reserves of all necessities for the coming three months, but people are concerned with the amount of wheat in markets. And of course, the extremely crowded Cairo will be filled with millions walking and hunting for low prices, while the virus is at large.

Libya

By Suliman Ibrahim

Only on 25 March the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Libya. Since then, the number has grown to be 20; one patient died and another recovered. However, these are the official statistics. Many believe that the real number is significantly larger, and fear the worst.

Libya’s already incapacitated health system has further deteriorated because of the political divide the country has experienced since mid 2014. There are two governments contesting legitimacy: one in the east of the country and another in the west. The last episode of this divide is a fight over control of the capital, Tripoli.

Still, the two governments have taken measures to limit the spread of the virus. Both have closed borders and stopped national and international flights, imposed a partial curfew, shuttered schools, closed mosques for prayers, and asked people to observe precautionary measures such as social distancing.

Observing these measures is not easy for many. For instance, many of those who work in the private sector cannot afford to stay home, and the government(s) provide no support for them. The situation is even more difficult for the residents of Tripoli as they have to face, besides the threat of COVID-19, an ever-escalating fight.

For other interesting contributions on the Coronacrisis in the MENA region see:

http://www.janjaapderuiter.eu/blog-corona-in-de-arabische-wereld/

https://www.mei.edu/blog/mena-coronavirus-update-region-faces-unprecedented-crisis

https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/14/coronavirus-in-conflict-zones-sobering-landscape-pub-81518

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