Region expects more trying times as infection cases continue to rise

There is concern that lack of testing means, among other factors, producing inaccurate counts of infection cases.
Sunday 22/03/2020
A crowd of  Iranians, some only wearing protective masks, at Tehran’s grand bazaar, despite the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)
No social distancing here. A crowd of Iranians, some only wearing protective masks, at Tehran’s grand bazaar, despite the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)

PARIS - As the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus contamination climbs, there are increasing concerns across the Middle East and North Africa that more trying times are ahead.

Official figures indicate there are 18,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in the Eastern Mediterranean region — the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan — with more than 1,000 deaths in seven countries, mostly in Iran.

The way of life to which the region had been accustomed has come to a halt. Millions of students are out of school, airline travel is suspended nearly everywhere and employees are struggling to work from home, when they can.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said the kingdom would implement all needed measures to contain the “difficult stage” of the coronavirus crisis. However, he warned “the next stage will be more difficult at the global level in confronting the rapid spread of the pandemic.”

There is fear among experts that the actual number of virus infection cases is higher than official figures. A lack of testing kits amid a chronically inadequate health structure in many parts of the region along with the possibility that many mild cases are not being detected could produce an inaccurate count.

Global health authorities called on MENA countries to be more forthcoming about epidemiological statistics.

“Unfortunately, even today, as the situation is becoming critical, information on cases is insufficiently communicated by countries to WHO,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, World Health Organisation regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean. He complained of “under-reporting on the part of some countries with regard to positive cases.”

The ability to track the pandemic varies from country to country. In some Arab countries, the situation is akin to that of sub-Saharan Africa in the early weeks of the outbreak when only two countries had outbreak testing ability.

Even more adequately equipped Arab countries were blinded by Iran’s attempts at denial and under-reporting as to the extent of the contamination in its borders that delayed precautionary decisions, especially in terms of travel restrictions.

Tehran refrained from stamping passports of Shia visitors from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, triggering vehement protests from Riyadh. By refusing to impose quarantines and confinement measures, Iranian authorities could make things even worse in the future.

Most countries in the Arab world also lack ventilator-equipped intensive care units to cope with the swelling numbers of those infected. To further compound the problem, many in society are not showing signs of full awareness or mobilisation. Shia religious processions in Iraq and Iran have continued to draw large crowds in recent days.

“Frankly we are seeing uneven approaches across the region. While we have observed impressive progress in several countries, not all are yet applying the whole of government and whole of society approach,” said Mandhari.

There are concerns that some drastic decisions taken to curtail the spread of the disease, such as travel suspensions and quarantines, could render life unbearable for vulnerable segments of the population.

There are those facing conditions of war or are displaced and with no access to reliable health systems. There is also a huge part of the population that is either self-employed or living off the informal sector may not be able to economically survive the disruptive measures.

“We need to take it to the next level to ensure support reaches those entirely dependent on the informal economy and countries less able to respond,” cautioned UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.