Virus outbreak disrupts region's way of life, upends politics as usual

Nothing illustrated more the disruption of social life in largely conservative societies than restrictions and cancellations of religious services.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Stemming the tide. Sanitary workers disinfect the desks and chairs of the Lebanese Parliament in Beirut amid the spread of coronavirus in the country. (AFP)
Stemming the tide. Sanitary workers disinfect the desks and chairs of the Lebanese Parliament in Beirut amid the spread of coronavirus in the country. (AFP)

TUNIS/ BEIRUT - With coronavirus infections and fatalities spiking in North Africa and the Middle East, the highly contagious outbreak is disrupting the region's way of life and upending its politics.

The suspension of international travel and maritime shipping, along with the sharp drop of oil prices amid stock market turbulence, has cast a dark cloud over the region's economic prospects.

Caught in the middle are expatriate populations stranded away from home, including 6 million of Maghrebi origin who must adjust to abrupt travel restrictions between North Africa and Europe.

With schools closed, many of the region's young people seem destined to remain in lockdown at home for weeks. In the scramble for solutions, online classes are increasingly an option for students and parents anguished about the fate of their children's education.

Lebanon, where the outbreak has been blamed for at least three deaths and more than 77 confirmed infections, is among the region's countries exploring remote teaching.

Albert Chamoun, media adviser at Lebanon’s Ministry of Education, noted “discrepancies" in access to online education. "In certain (underprivileged) areas students can’t afford access to the internet or don’t have the tools to access the internet,” he said.

There have been many other layers of social disruption accompanying the health crisis. With sports and culture events cancelled and coffee shops and restaurants closed, populations are trying to cope.

Nothing illustrated more the disruption of social life in largely conservative societies than restrictions and cancellations of religious services. In many places, authorities called off or limited Friday prayer gatherings. Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimages to Islam's holiest sites, an unprecedented measure.

Politics has not been spared the fallout from the virus pandemic. The effects played out in various ways across the region. It seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of street protests in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, even if many demonstrators wore protective masks as a precaution against disease as they try to sustain their movement.

In Algeria, despite a request by Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad for protesters to ease pressure on the government, demonstrations continued on March 13, the 56th successive Friday of protests. Protesters took to the streets in Algiers and at least 23 other cities to press for a "total overhaul" of the regime.

In many parts of the region, there have been worries about the inadequacy of health infrastructure and government policies along with questions about transparency and the accuracy of official outbreak statistics. In Iran, a lack of transparency further eroded the public's trust in the government after the announced 611 fatalities and more than 12,000 confirmed cases were suspected to be below the actual toll.

The pandemic added to frictions between Tehran and Arab Gulf countries. Riyadh held Iran "directly responsible" for the spread of the COVID-19 virus worldwide and in the kingdom because most of Saudi Arabia’s reported cases were said to have contracted the virus during visits to Iran.

The Iranian regime is seeking outside help at the same time it has turned to conspiracy theories to explain the mounting crisis.

In a March 13 message on his official website, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told  Army Chief-of-Staff Major-General Mohammad Bagheri that "evidence... suggests the likelihood of this being a biological attack."

Iran expert and Arab Weekly contributor Ali Alfoneh said: "Not even a pandemic causes Khamenei to change his bad old habits."

In Israel, where 19 of virus infection cases were reported and more than 32,000 people quarantined, the post-election impasse was increasingly untenable. Politicians have been jolted into accepting the possibility of a national unity government to address the health emergency.

In a televised address March 13, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said it was necessary to form a government "to save the lives of numerous citizens." His rival Benny Gantz said he was "willing to discuss the establishment of a broad, national emergency government."

Israeli columnist Herb Keinon noted in the Jerusalem Post that "the coronavirus has suddenly altered life here in a way completely unexpected. Why? Because of a feeling of a total lack of control."

Confirmed cases in the region soared beyond the 10,000 mark. Besides Iran, the region's epicentre, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco recorded virus-related deaths.

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