Asia has about 36,86,916 Coronavirus cases. Out of 48 countries, the top 5 in this tally include 3 Middle Eastern countries (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia). For this under reported region that is battling war, social evils, paralysed healthcare systems, and a weakening economy, the battle against the pandemic is different than it is for the rest of the world.
What are they even fighting for anymore?
In historic African American folk music pieces known as ‘spirituals’, the term ‘Promised Land’ had two meanings- a place away from the harsh realities of a slave life, and death. For thousands of helpless inhabitants of Gaza, Palestine, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, this rings true in current times.
The Gaza Strip probably has the highest population density in the world, with 13,064 people per square mile. This makes social distancing highly difficult. Poverty in Gaza was 53% even before the pandemic. The ruling militant group Hamas doesn’t have enough funding or physical resources to provide adequate medical aid. Hamas has alleged that the PA, their main source of funding, sent considerably less medical aid to Gaza than it did to other Palestinian regions. The people, meanwhile, cut off from the rest of the world due to power cuts, dismally weak 2G internet, and a restricted press, probably have no idea where they stand in the world anymore.
There are other warring nations like Yemen, Syria, and Libya where major parts of the healthcare infrastructure have been destroyed in violent attacks. There are hundreds of refugees held in prisons and detention centers in inhuman conditions. The rest also live in tents or out in the open. The number of cases and fatalities in these countries remain undefined.
In countries like Jordan and Lebanon, more than a million refugees from Syria live in densely populated camps with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene. Basic measures such as washing hands regularly and self-quarantining are tough to follow here. The lack of reported cases is not a good sign but a dangerous one, since it only means that we have no idea how many cases and deaths are going unreported.
In Iran, official estimates suggest about 25 million cases. The actual number of cases and deaths could be eight to ten times more. There are families which have reportedly stopped doctors from recording deaths of their loved ones because of stigma attached to the virus. Because of the USA’s sanctions, crucial medical equipment isn’t able to reach Iran. Even though there are technically no sanctions on healthcare transfer, the world hesitates to transact with Iran regardless.
The Gulf, the oil-minting prosperous region of the ME, is home to 35 million migrant workers from other countries across Asia. Adding to their crowded living conditions, tens of thousands have been laid off, repatriated, and detained without proper health care or sick pay. Some are working with zero pay out of fear of being deported and going back destitute.
Recession in the Middle East
The economy in middle-class, developing Lebanon was in shambles even before the lockdown, and it only became worse. Protests went from demonstrations to burning of banks. The situation is worse in other war and conflict affected countries, where poverty was already widespread.
The two major contributors to ME economies, tourism and oil trade, have both stopped indefinitely. Oil exports were mainly being sent to countries now hit by the virus. Currently, oil prices are around $40 a barrel, which is below the fiscal breakeven point.
The Mecca pilgrimage alone gives Saudi Arabia a majority of its $70 billion tourism economy. With dwindling numbers, the government faces a huge loss in revenue. While the businessmen are losing their riches, daily wage earners are struggling to put food on their plate.
Owing to re-imposition of stricter sanctions by the Trump government, Iran’s oil exports had already been slashed by about 80%. It’s GDP has been shrinking for the past two years. With the ongoing recession, even if sanctions are lifted today, Iran will need a lot of time and effort to be able to provide proper healthcare to the whole nation.
Pandemics don’t affect everyone equall.y
Women and children make up a vast majority of refugees and displaced families. Gender discrimination in laws and social norms costs the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and estimated $575 billion a year. Only a quarter of women here had jobs. Lack of education and losing male family members to the pandemic is putting an undue burden on them.
Since families are spending more time together, the prevalence of domestic abuse against women is also increasing. Women in these patriarchal societies are less empowered and have limited access to help. In families unable to pay for children’s education, girls are the first ones to be pulled out of school. Early marriage is also on the rise due to financial burden.
What is being done?
The rich kids of the ME, the Gulf has some practice dealing with the MERS Coronavirus in 2012. They promptly closed down travel, and shifted all operations online while imposing nationwide lockdowns. Economic stimulus packages have also been announced by all of them. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia dedicated close to $570 million and $2.3 billion respectively for covering private sector employees’ salaries.
Yemen, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon have been receiving international aid from the WHO, World Bank, and other institutions. Local organisations such as the Iraqi Red Crescent Society have also taken up key measures such as public disinfection into their hands. Addressing the issue of gender discrimination, Tunisia and Lebanon have created a 24-hour hotline for domestic abuse victims.
After the USA and China, Saudi Arabia and UAE are India’s third and fourth biggest trading partners. Plus, the India-Gulf region is the world’s second largest migration corridor. PM Modi has been communicating with his counterparts, sharing information, sending medical supplies and aid across to both the Gulf and more severely affected regions such as Jordan and Israel.
In order for the international community to be able to help the Middle East, the region firstly needs to start reporting facts and sharing information. In Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, journalists have been detained for exposing the government’s underreporting of cases. Iran has also been exercising denial and under-information since the pandemic began. These are counterproductive measures and help no one. It is time for the ME to open its doors and for once, let others advise them on how to run their states.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.