News Roundup: The MENA Region in the Time of COVID-19
Media summary on how the Middle East and North Africa region is handling the coronavirus pandemic
COVID-19 continues to spread across the world with a total of 196,639 confirmed cases globally, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The numbers of cases are surging in Iran with 16,169 confirmed cases and 988 deaths following official estimates. According to news reports, Iran may have also been the origin of some of the first cases elsewhere in the Gulf and Middle East. Meanwhile the number of cases continues to mount in the region, with 2,095 cases recorded in Arab states. Though the outbreak in Iran may be exceptional, other countries in the Middle East and North Africa are taking note of the risks.
Headlines across the region are dominated by the coronavirus crisis with news of confirmed cases and preventative measures announced by MENA governments to address the pandemic and limit the spread of the virus. The vast majority of countries have halted international air and sea travel, closed borders, restricted public gatherings, and have taken steps to inject liquidity into their economies to preempt any further economic fallout. Many countries in the region banned prayers in mosques through fatwas (religious edicts) issued by their highest islamic scholastic councils; a strong measure in societies known to be observant of their faith. In countries with minority Christian populations, Churches were also closed. In Israel, the World Organization of Orthodox Synagogues and Communities issued new guidelines that would limit prayers services.
In countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria where protests started in 2019 and continued well into early 2020, the COVID-19 crisis adds more pressure to an already faltering public service system which was the catalyst for many of these protests. The fragility of the healthcare system in countries like Iraq is also a weak link in preventing the epidemic from spreading. North African Countries, particularly Algeria and Morocco, enacted some of the most sweeping travel restrictions given the number of nationals living and working in Europe, which is now the epicenter of the crisis.
"In countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria... the COVID-19 crisis adds more pressure to an already faltering public service system which was the catalyst for many of these protests."
Other countries in the region that are in conflict namely Syria, Libya and Yemen are yet to declare any confirmed cases. Challenges remain in their capacity to test, provide care, and enforce emergency responses to the pandemic, especially since travel is already dangerous in these countries. This may slow the spread of the virus to areas under siege, but the potential fallout from an outbreak in these areas would be devastating.
The following news round-up summarizes where the MENA region stands in its response to this global pandemic.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Algeria has recorded 60 coronavirus cases with 4 reported deaths.
Echorouk reports over the weekend showed that Algeria progressively shut down international travel, abruptly terminating flights to Morocco, leaving many Algerians stuck in the Casablanca airport. They received no previous notification from Algerian Airlines, which stated that the political decision overruled its authority. Algeria moved to ban air travel to Spain and reduce the number of flights to France, only to announce a few days later the suspension of all sea and air travel to Europe starting March 19.
On Tuesday, the Minister of Religious Affairs Yousef Belmahdi announced the complete suspension of Friday prayer services and closure of mosques and places of worship around the country while maintaining the call to prayer.
On the economy, the President of the Algerian Exporters Association, Ali Bay Nasri, discussed in an interview with Echorouk that the Algerian market will face wide scarcity of Chinese goods which represent 25 percent of Algerian imports, stating “Chinese products will not enter the national market for 6 months, because of a decision to prevent container ships from sailing to China. This will continue at least until May, whereas Chinese factories will not return to work for two months. In addition, import operations will take at least 90 days.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Bahrain has reported 228 coronavirus cases with 1 reported death.
According to Al Monitor, Bahrain with a population of 1.7 million, is “one of the countries with the highest rate of the virus per capita.” As in other countries in the region and worldwide, Bahrain canceled large events including the popular Bahrain Grand Prix. Fears of the virus spreading in Bahrain’s prisons led the Bahraini authorities to release more than 1,000 prisoners, pardoned by the King. Rights groups accused the government of negligence in the case of a Pakistani prisoner who showed symptoms of the viral infection. Amnesty International said the royal pardon of detainees is due to the spread of the virus. It said on its twitter page that “1,500 prisoners released ‘for supposedly humanitarian reasons.’ Real reason:#COVID19. Gov't itself has admitted ‘overcrowding,’ ‘broken toilets,’ ‘insect infestation,’ and generally ‘bad hygiene’ conditions in prisons.”
The official Bahraini news agency reported last week that out of 165 Bahraini citizens repatriated from Iran, 77 tested positive, prompting Bahraini officials to throw accusations at Iran of mishandling the crisis. “With this behavior, Iran has allowed the disease to travel abroad, and in my estimation this constitutes a form of biological aggression that is criminalized by international law, as it has put in danger our safety and health and that of others,” Bahraini Interior Minister General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa said on Twitter.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Egypt has recorded 196 coronavirus cases with 4 reported deaths.
The Egyptian government will close all borders starting March 19th. President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi announced last week that schools and universities should suspend classes for two weeks starting March 15.
Also on Sunday, March 15, Al Azhar University, the highest regarded Sunni Institution in Egypt and much of the Sunni Muslim world, issued a fatwa permitting the cancelation of Friday congregations and group prayers in mosques due to the spread of novel coronavirus. The Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments “closed all mausoleums and shrines nationwide and suspended classes at Islamic cultural centres affiliated with the ministry for two weeks,” reports Al Ahram.
The governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, demanded that all Egyptians traveling to their respective countries must show proof that they are “coronavirus-free.” Accordingly, thousands of Egyptians rushed to the Ministry of Health’s labs to get tested, according to news reports. Social media posts by Egyptian citizens were critical of their government for “exploiting” its people with its elevated price for the demanded test (65 USD). Other social media posts showed throngs of Egyptians congregating chaotically near the laboratories to get tested.
News reports about a Nile Cruise Ship being the vector of coronavirus infections among tourists who traveled back to Europe and the United States further threatens the Egyptian economy which continues to rely heavily on the tourism sector.
Timothy Kaldas, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute, writes that as Saudi Arabia and Russia engage in a war on oil prices, their mutual friend, Egypt could fall victim to the fallout, given that the Egyptian economy relies on remittances from citizens working in countries dependent on oil. “A collapse in prices could lead to layoffs, placing downward pressure on remittances reaching Egypt’s banks,” he added.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Israel has recorded 337 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
The Israeli government has closed schools, universities, and cultural centers and banned gatherings of more than 10 people, according to Haaretz. The Israeli government took strong measures last week forbidding all foreign nationals from entering Israel unless they submit to a 14-day self quarantine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government, “will bypass Knesset approval and green light ‘emergency’ cyber measures usually used in counter-terrorism to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.” On Monday, March 16, Netanyahu announced that the Israeli public sector will “operate according to an emergency framework” and that private sector firms with “more than 10 employees will be required to reduce staff present in the workplace by 70%.”
News editor of The Jerusalem Post, Mayaan Jaffe-Hoffman, consulted with medical and health public policy experts questioning the extreme measures taken by the Israeli government with “fewer than 300 cases.” Medical and health experts noted that the “severity of the measures being taken now” is due to a medical system that has been allowed to deteriorate for decades and is unprepared to deal with a large scale spread of the virus. Experts cite the inadequate numbers of medical staff, especially in nursing, and shortages of protective gear needed by doctors and lab staff to test more people.
The Times of Israelreported last week that “An effective Israeli-developed vaccine for coronavirus is on track to be ready for testing within “a few weeks,” though it won’t be available for months because of the lengthy and sometimes bureaucratic testing and approval process, a member of the development team said Tuesday. Chen Katz told The Times of Israel that the new oral vaccine for adults and children could “turn this disease into a very mild cold.” He said that for many people who are inoculated and then infected by COVID-19, “potentially it will not affect them at all.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Iraq has recorded 154 coronavirus cases with 11 reported deaths.
On Tuesday March 16, Alforat News reported on the convening of the ministerial council to investigate means of combating coronavirus and reassuring citizens on the distribution of food. In the meeting the Minister of Health Jafar Alawi stated the ministry’s advancements in combating the outbreak and success in protecting Iraqis.
However, Almada paper reported the Minister of Health days ago stated that the ministry does not have enough funds to control an outbreak in Iraq. “90 percent of the ministry’s budget goes to employee salaries,” the minister said. The health committee of the Iraqi parliament concluded that the ministry needs 100 million dollars in emergency funds to combat the epidemic, but others remain skeptical of allocating excess funds to the ministry, citing major corruption scandals in 2017 and 2018 that wasted millions.
Also on Tuesday, the Ministry of Transportation and Iraq’s domestic airline carrier announced the suspension of flights to all foreign and domestic sectors from March 17 to March 24. The statement also mentioned that the decision to stop flights was taken according to recommendations issued by the minister of transportation on preventative measures to stem the spread of coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Iran has recorded 16,169 coronavirus cases with 988 reported deaths.
Iran was the first country in the Middle East to be affected by COVID-19. Despite downplaying initial fears, the outbreak spread from the holy city of Qom. By March 3, 10 percent of Majles members became infected, including two who have died, writes Robin Wright for The New Yorker. The Supreme Council mobilized 300,000 IRGC, Basij paramilitary forces, and firefighters to set up roadblocks, test citizens, and sanitize public spaces. Schools have been closed since February 28, and 54,000 prisoners were released on March 3 to help contain the spread. Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for March 18 are postponed according to the Iran Primer.
However, Graeme Wood writes for The Atlantic that Iran most likely is vastly understating reported cases. Using open source figures to create new estimates, Wood suggests Iran could have an average of 2,000,000 infected, or 133 times the reported amount (according to current figures). On March 12 the Washington Post reported that the death toll of coronavirus could be much higher than official figures suggest based on analysis of satellite images of a grave site near Qom. After much resistance from conservative establishment the government was compelled to impose a lockdown on holy sites in Qom and Mashhad. However, Al Monitor reports that hardliners stormed the barricades and denounced the lockdown, revealing acute strains in the government’s containment policy.
According to state media, President Rouhani addressed cabinet ministers last Wednesday, advising people to modify their lifestyle and take heed of the spread of the virus, putting aside travel and staying home, while he praised the efforts of doctors and medical centers. The Iranian Students News Agency reported Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Javad Zarif discussed the coronavirus fight in a telephone conversation in which Yi voiced China’s readiness to send specialized aid and methods for fighting the disease and to work on scientific cooperation with Iran.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Jordan has recorded 34 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
The government of Jordan has closed all borders as of Tuesday and is quarantining any arrivals to the country by land or air for 14 days in hotels in the Dead Sea, Amman and the southern Red Sea city of Aqaba. The Government spokesperson announced on Monday that the authorities are considering declaring a national emergency in order to “curb” the spread of the virus. Schools and universities closed last week, and large sporting and cultural events have been canceled.
Mosques were also closed for prayers. Jordan began taking strong measures even when it only had one confirmed case in order to mitigate any potential stresses on its public health system. Government officials confirmed that all infected persons had traveled from abroad or had mingled with Jordanians who returned from Europe and the Gulf. The government is reported to have “kept borders open for commercial cargo” assuring people that the country has a “stockpile of commodities and essential goods that would last six months."
Minister of Energy Hala Zawati also said gasoline and diesel supplies “covered 60 days” if consumption levels remained the same. Jordan imports are more than 95 percent of its energy needs. Further, The Jordan Central Bank cut compulsory reserves for commercial banks from 7 percent to 5 percent in order to inject what is equivalent to 700 million USD of liquidity into the economy.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Kuwait has recorded 130 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
The Government of Kuwait announced a halt of all commercial international flights from midnight Friday 13 March “until further notice” due to fears of the coronavirus outbreak, according to various news sources.KUNA, the official news agency reported that Kuwaiti “authorities also announced a public holiday in the country from March 12 to March 26, with work resuming on March 29… adding that entities providing vital services would remain open.” People are also banned from “going to restaurants and cafes, including those inside malls.”
The Ministry of Health said the country “has administered 9,981 coronavirus tests... On Saturday, March 15, Kuwait announced it would close shops, malls, and barbershops to prevent the spread of the virus,” reported Gulf News.
The Kuwaiti economy is under stress due to both the COVID-19 crisis as well as the oil price war that erupted last week. News reports quoted a document issued by the Kuwaiti cabinet noting that the local economy would “contract during the first half of this year by 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent at the end of the year, compared to previous expectations of 2.2 percent growth.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Lebanon has recorded 120 coronavirus cases with 3 reported deaths.
The Daily Star reported that the Lebanese government declared a “state of general mobilization” calling for the “closure of the airport and seaports.” Further, restaurants, cafes and bars have beenclosed since last week and most private businesses were shuttered Monday, March 16.
Health officials and economic experts noted that the country’s critical “dollar shortage” that impacted the economy as protests against the government erupted in the fall of 2019, is likely to adversely impact Lebanon’s capacity to address the COVID-19 crisis as hospitals will be “exposed to shortages in everything from dialysis equipment to syringes.”
The Jerusalem Post reported that Senior Hezbollah officials have been placed under quarantine after being infected with the coronavirus. They may have had contact with Iranian officials who also tested positive for the coronavirus. Reports in Israeli media added that Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is under quarantine to prevent him from contracting the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Libya has reported no confirmed coronavirus cases.
TheLibyan News Agency reported that the Government of National Accord Minister of Economy Ali Al Isawi has issued a decision to ban export of masks, sanitizers and respiratory devices. A state of emergency was declared March 15, to confront coronavirus by the head of the Presidential Council who declared that half a billion Libyan dinars have been allocated to fight the pandemic. All the country's border outlets, schools, universities were ordered closed and sports and social events were also banned.
Further, the Libyan Observer reported that the head of the presidential council, Fayez Al Sarraj called the heads of government bodies, agencies and departments to compel employees to take their yearly leave and initiate alternating work schedules in which daily work will be limited to the least number of workers possible to maintain quality of service.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Morocco has recorded 38 coronavirus cases with 2 reported deaths.
Morocco took swift action, announcing a suspension of air and sea travel with Spain causing panic for Moroccans living and working there, leaving many stuck at the Spanish border since Thursday afternoon, reported Assabah. Crossings “transformed into crowds of buses and cars” as migrants and travelers diverted to checkpoints to find a successful means of reaching national soil.
On Sunday Alalam reported King Mohammad VI ordered the creation of a special fund to confront the coronavirus epidemic. The 10 billion Dirham fund (around 1 billion USD) will be allocated directly to costs related to the rapid rehabilitation of health infrastructure and procurement of materials to fight the virus. Mosques were ordered closed to daily and Friday prayer services by a fatwa issued by the Supreme Council for the Commander of the Faithful that went into effect Monday. Also on Monday the Ministry of Interior ordered the closure of shops, cafes, theaters, and all nonessential commercial enterprises. News reports conveyed the announcement by the Minister of the Interior to implement precautionary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus on public transportation.
Regarding the economy, Bayane Alyaoume reported an analysis by CFJ Bank that coronavirus reduced tourist arrivals to Morocco by 39 percent. The Moroccan tourism sector depends heavily on the number of arrivals from the European countries, therefore it is affected by the economic performance of the EU. On Tuesday, the Prosecutor General announced harsh new sentencing standards on those propagating false information on the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Oman has recorded 24 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
Oman Air will suspend all air travel to Bahrain and Egypt until further notice, according to The Times of Oman. The Ministry of Health also implemented mandatory quarantine on all travelers entering the Sultanate effective Tuesday. However, Oman will not ban entry to members of GCC states and holders of residency permits.
Oman has implemented numerous precautionary measures to sanitize public transportation and facilities, but Muscat Daily reports that on 12 pm Wednesday all mosques and non-muslim places of worship will be closed along with large commercial complexes including traditional markets such as the Souqs in Mattrah, Nizwa, and Rustaq. Large public gatherings and conferences will be banned.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, The West Bank recorded 41 coronavirus cases and no cases were reported for Gaza, largely due to the lack of test kits.
The Jerusalem Post reported that the “Palestinian Authority has suspended prayers in Mosques and Churches in the West Bank” to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus. More than 7000 cases are in self-quarantine according to PA spokesperson Ibrahim Mlehm. PA officials also called on the International Red Cross and WHO to intervene to ensure that Israel is adequately protecting the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in jails from COVID-19, according to news reports.
In Gaza, gatherings of more than 100 people are banned, and schools are closed throughout the month of March. Hamas officials said, “all border crossings will be shut for travel.” Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories worldwide and has a crippled health system. Many fear an outbreak in Gaza will most likely spread to Israel and fast. Al Monitor conveyed that various reports from the Gaza Strip noted that “there are people who complain about symptoms that are typical of the virus but are not being tested. Hundreds of pilgrims have been returning from Mecca to the Strip, as well as thousands of laborers who worked in Israel until last week. It is very possible that some of them carry the virus and are now infecting others in the Strip.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Qatar has recorded 439 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
Gulf News reported that Qatar said it would “ban non-Qatari passengers from entering the country for two weeks” starting on March 18. It also “announced measures to shield its economy, including 75 billion riyals ($20.5 billion) in incentives for the private sector and more state investment in the local bourse (stock exchange).”
Further, food and medical items have been spared customs fees for the next 6 months. The government of Qatar also took stronger measures this week by shutting down all public transportation including the metro and buses, reported Al Jazeera.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Saudi Arabia has recorded 171 coronavirus cases and 0 reported deaths.
Saudi Arabia canceled last week all international travel to the country for pilgrimage in Mecca and took strong measures by banning prayer in the holy city. This ban also includes Prophet Muhammad’s mosque nearby in the city of Medina. While the government said these measures were temporary, it’s not clear how long they will be enforced given the spread of the virus in the Kingdom and globally.
On March 16, Saudi Arabia took further measures to close restaurants, cafes and parks. Public sector work has also been halted with the exceptions of the health, interior and security apparatuses.
To offset the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, the “Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) said it had prepared a 50 billion riyal ($13.32 billion) package to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) cope with the economic impacts of coronavirus,” according to news reports. SAMA said in a statement that this funding “aims to grant SMEs six-month deferrals on bank payments, concessional financing and exemptions from the costs of a loan guarantee program.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Sudan has recorded one coronavirus case with one reported death, which the government said is a man in his fifties who had arrived from the UAE.
Sudanese authorities declared a state of emergency in the country on March 16 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to the Sudanese News Agency. This announcement was made by the country's Security and Defense Council. Also, the Sudanese Sovereign Council announced “a near-total closure of its borders.” The government also asked the health ministry and military medical services to prepare quarantine centers.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has reported no confirmed coronavirus cases.
The Government of Syria closed public schools, canceled public events and parliamentary elections were postponed until May. However, Syrian officials claim that all these measures are merely precautionary as the government “insists” that the country is COVID-19 free. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that “Syrian doctors had detected cases of the virus in Damascus and at least three other provinces but were under orders to keep quiet.”
The WHO Damascus office toldAl Jazeera that “WHO did not receive any official report from the [International Health Regulations] focal point about confirmation of cases in Syria. However, WHO assesses the risk is very high in Syria.” Further, Al Jazeera states “Reports of COVID-19 infections have also circulated on social media and news outlets and have been attributed to continuing travel between Syria and Iran, the regional epicenter of the outbreak. Syria is one of the few countries in the region which has not stopped flights to Iran, which has registered 14,000 confirmed cases and more than 700 deaths from the coronavirus.”
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, the UAE has recorded 24 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
In Tunisia, Aljanoubiya TV reported Sunday that ministers of health, interior, and provincial governors gathered for a working session to strengthen preventative measures against coronavirus and examine ways to overcome the difficulties in implementing the national strategy to combat the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Religious Affairs approved guidelines for Imams and worshipers on preventing infection based on the national awareness campaign and preventative measures issued by the Ministry of Health.
Assabah News reported on Monday a press conference after a meeting of the heads of major parliamentary blocks, in which Rachid Elganouchi, head of the Ennahda movement, advised Tunisians to “Shut your doors”, stressing the importance of limiting movement to stop the spread of coronavirus. He added that it's impossible to combat the virus without “national solidarity,” also referencing the fund which had been devoted to support national efforts in combating the epidemic.
The first Tunisians were Evacuated from France Monday. A group of residents and tourists aboard a Transavia plane bound for the Paris-Orly airport were disembarked. They totaled 195 travelers of which 8 were infants.
United Arab Emirates
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, the UAE has recorded 98 coronavirus cases with 0 reported deaths.
The United Arab Emiratesshuttered “major tourism and cultural venues to contain the spread of coronavirus on March 15.” On March 16, the “National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority, along with the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf), banned public prayers in all places of worship across the UAE.” Further, today, the UAE Fatwa Council issued a fatwa Tuesday prohibiting “congregational worship and calls for all Muslims in the country to comply with government rules to limit the spread of coronavirus,” reported The National.
The country also “announced a $27-billion plan to counter the outbreak’s economic impact.” CNBC reported that the UAE, which attracts 17 million visitors every year, will likely be hit by the spread of the virus especially hard as it hoped to attract more than 20 million visitors to the Dubai Expo 2020 this coming fall.
As of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Yemen reported no confirmed coronavirus cases.
The Supreme Ministerial Council to Combat Epidemics approved measures Monday to close ports to all travelers and activities with the exception of shipping necessary commodities. Measures were also taken to suspend studies and testing in schools, universities, academies and colleges until further notice, reported Althawra. AA reported that the internationally recognized Yemeni government held an emergency meeting in Riyadh and approved the suspension of flights to and from Yemeni airports.
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