Arab world braces for effects of coronavirus outbreak

Much of the wariness was spurred by the seemingly uncontrolled situation in Iran, one of the epicentres of the global crisis.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Worshippers wearing masks sit in the courtyard of the shrine of Imam Ali in the Iraqi central city of Najaf. (AFP)
Questions about Iran. Worshippers wearing masks sit in the courtyard of the shrine of Imam Ali in the Iraqi central city of Najaf. (AFP)

LONDON - With the coronavirus epidemic spreading quickly outside China, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa braced for the effects of the outbreak within their own borders. Much of the wariness was spurred by the seemingly uncontrolled situation in Iran, one of the epicentres of the global crisis.

Several Middle Eastern countries, including Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain and Algeria, reported cases of coronavirus infection, most involving people who had travelled from Iran.

Despite Iranian officials’ attempts to downplay the seriousness of the health crisis in the country, the epidemic was spreading there; with at least two senior officials infected and a mortality rate much higher than in other countries.

Tehran has faced criticism for its handling of the outbreak. Iranian MP Ahmad Farahani publicly accused the country’s Health Ministry of covering up the true number of cases. An Iranian vice-president and a deputy health minister have tested positive for the virus. The BBC’s Farsi service reported a death toll of 210, much higher than the official toll of 34.

Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said there is a region-wide problem of readiness to cope with the outbreak. “In most countries of the region, you have the problem of states functionality. In some countries, it is failed states and inability to provide societies with a considerable degree of governance, competence and performance,” he said.

Elie Abouaoun, director of the MENA Programme at the United States Institute of Peace, described the general response across the region as “relatively poor,” due to “lack of preparedness.” He acknowledged that problems of governance faced by many regional countries “are certainly more serious in Iran.”

States in the region instituted travel restrictions to slow the spread of the outbreak. Measures included stopping flights and restricting travel, especially from Iran and China.

However, nothing illustrated more the alarm in the region about the risk of broad contamination than Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend the umrah. It is not known what decision Riyadh will take on the annual haj, which is the single largest gathering of humanity. This year’s haj is scheduled for July 28-August 2.

Restrictions are having a major effect on everyday life in the region. Iraq and Lebanon announced the closure of schools for at least a week.

There is concern in the region about the likely economic effects of the outbreak. China has strong trade, energy and business ties to the region. As more flight bans are announced and economic uncertainty increases, the price of oil is also forecast to tumble.

Jihad Azour, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, said: “We still need time in order to assess the magnitude of this shock.”

“The economic situation in most of the region’s countries has been worsening in the last few years,” Hasan said, adding that governments in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen could face particular problems.

Fears over how an outbreak would affect tourism revenues were rising. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that the epidemic would cost global tourism $22 billion. The effect of travel disruptions will be especially felt by MENA economies, such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, that rely on travel and tourism.

In Saudi Arabia, haj and umrah visitors provide an estimated $12 billion a year of income to the Saudi GDP, around 20% of the kingdom’s non-oil GDP and 7% total.

Experts said the outbreak would add pressure on the sorely tested medical infrastructure of the region. They warned that wars and upheaval in many parts of the region could adversely affect its ability to cope with the global epidemic.

Although he acknowledged that “in some cases, ongoing military conflicts can hinder contingency planning efforts,” Abouaoun said there is a need for “concerted interagency response that includes awareness, data-driven public communication, more effective border and travellers management and providing quick and effective health care to patients.”

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