Mudasir Ali Dar
Coronavirus has brought the world to a standstill, crippling economies, industrial activity, and even wars and fighting stand paused everywhere. Globalisation’s axioms of an interconnected world, interdependence, borderless societies, etc, are now in doubt. Globalisation and its ally, neo-liberalism, might both fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic. The United States, the world’s most powerful and most secured country, is battling an existential crisis, as coronavirus has infected 8 lakh plus of its population including 40,000 plus deaths. The global economy would take years to get back to normal, as economists have predicted the crisis to be crueller than the great depression of 1930s. People around the world have been put under lockdown, domestic and international travel is banned, and the world awaits a vaccine as saviour.
The developed world is facing shortage of medical equipment and lack of technology know-how. These first-world countries where people are relatively rich, have higher living standards, and there is advanced research and development, are nevertheless swept by this deadly pandemic. The crisis is such that these politically stable, scientifically advanced and economically richer states are requesting assistance from third-world countries. On the other hand, war-torn Middle East, economically ravaged, politically shattered and technologically underprivileged, is a ticking bomb ready to explode.
Although few countries of the energy resource-rich region have publicly disclosed the number of coronavirus cases, the statistics might be quite alarming. Iran is the hardest hit in the region, followed by Saudi Arabia. Israel, the most developed, stable and advanced country in the region, is struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus. The other countries in the region are most probably hiding the data, for they are ruled by monarchs and dictators who repress the media, silence the opposition, and hide any information that is dangerous to them. Syria is especially prone to the contagious disease because of religious pilgrimage throughout the year and due to the unceasing wars, attacks and airstrikes that have displaced a large section of its population, which now lives in unhygienic and overcrowded refugee camps. In Yemen, healthcare infrastructure has been smashed by bombs and airstrikes.
Although the whole Middle East region is susceptible to coronavirus due to poor preparedness, two countries are most at risk: Yemen and Syria.
In Yemen, what has been called the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, is in its fifth year and has virtually devastated the entire population. Government forces and the Houthi rebels, or the Ansarullah movement, have been fighting over control of the impoverished state. Thirteen million people face starvation in Yemen with the corona pandemic limiting aid that can reach the country. Roughly 80 percent population relies on relief aid from the government and nongovernment organisations. In its report, UNDP reported, “If fighting continues through 2022, Yemen will rank as the poorest country in the world, with 79 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as extremely poor.” The Arab world’s poorest country has virtually been razed to the ground, its healthcare wiped out, and homeless starving people massacred with bullets, bombs and airstrikes. Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy, told the UNSC: “Yemen cannot fight two fronts simultaneously, a war and a pandemic. A new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming.” Epidemiologists warn that Covid-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely, and have deadlier consequences than in other countries. While the government has reported only one infection, shortage of medicines, edibles, and other necessities have already pushed the country to the edge of famine. Covid-19 outbreak will be no less than a catastrophe for the tormented population.
Syria has been devastated by a 9-year-old civil war between the Syrian regime and rebel groups. The civil war has attracted many militant groups and has displaced 6 million people to overcrowded camps that have insufficient water and sanitisation infrastructure. Only 50% of government healthcare is fully functional and according to WHO, there is considerable shortage of trained staff. The UN coordinator of humanitarian affairs reports that “All efforts to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system”. He also outlined significant obstacles to battling the virus within Syria, including frequent population movement, the difficulty in acquiring medical supplies and protective equipment, and in particular the difficulty in enforcing social distancing within crowded refugee camps. The war in Syria between the Assad regime and opposition forces has knocked down the state. There are 11 million people including 5 million children who need urgent humanitarian aid. The foremost concern is that if the virus spreads in refugee camps, it would create havoc in the whole region. Official statistics so far report only 39 infections, but the numbers may be higher as the government allows no media freedom. Sabrina Bennoui, who heads the Middle East desk for Reporters Without Borders, noted that governments in the region, already notorious for maintaining an iron grip over the media, are aiming to keep public opinion under control amid the pandemic. Syria is the only country that has not sealed its borders with the most affected country in the region – Iran.
The Middle East is the most vulnerable region if the corona pandemic spreads there. The anti-regime movements earlier in 2011 in the form of Arab Spring and continued armed movements and conflict between protesters and governments forces, along with terrorist attacks, air bombings, and missile targets in civilian areas have destroyed health infrastructure in many countries. Social distancing and personal hygiene will be impossible to follow in overcrowded filthy refugee camps, especially in rebel-held Idlib province in Syria where more people get squeezed near the Turkish border between Syrian attacks and Turkish bombings. Yemen’s port city Aden has emerged as a detention hub for Ethiopian and Somali migrants and refugees.
The world’s superpowers and global civil society need to provide economic aid to the war-torn states in the Middle East. The developed countries, especially those that have been bombing the region, need to show some responsibility. If the Middle East needs to get out of this disaster it will require an inclusive regional response supported and aided by the United Nations Organisation.