The Middle East is rapidly becoming the second largest hotspot for the new coronavirus after China. So far, ten countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been affected by the virus. By far the largest number of infections and fatalities are in Iran. Known as COVID-19, the virus has killed close to 3,000 people worldwide, the majority of which were recorded in China – the original source of the disease. Symptoms of the viral infection include cough, fever, and shortness of breath. The disease has quickly spread to more than 50 countries since January.
Symptoms of the viral infection include cough, fever, and shortness of breath.
With more than 300 recorded viral infections and 34 deaths in February, Iran is in the middle of a rising public health crisis. Making matters worse, Iranian authorities have minimized the threat of the coronavirus to the point that the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, and MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, who said that the state did not engage in a cover-up of a viral epidemic in Iran and everything was under control in a televised press conference, were quarantined after testing positive for the virus.
Showing visible signs of sickness, Harirchi was wiping sweat on his forehead and coughing during his speech. He continued to downplay the health emergency in Iran after he tested positive for the virus by claiming that a major quarantine was not necessary. Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Masouma Ebtekar, and lawmaker Mojtaba Zonnour also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Health experts in the West believe that the epidemic may have started in Iran long before it became publicly known. Iranian authorities may have concealed the real numbers of infections and deaths much like China did. Because of state-led falsehoods, under-reporting of infections and deaths, and negligence to address the problem in Iran, the entire region is bracing for a pandemic.
So far, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Israel, Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Algeria have recorded cases.
So far, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Israel, Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Algeria have recorded cases of COVID-19 infections. Collectively, the number of cases in the Middle East has surpassed more than 400. Many infections in the Middle East, specifically patients in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, and Oman, were linked to travels to Iran. There are fears that sizeable Shia populations in Iraq and Turkey could be at risk of spreading the virus.
Visits of many Muslims from around world to religious sites in the Middle East could also become purveyors of the disease. Because of this concern, Saudi authorities issued a ban on foreign pilgrims to Mecca and Medina on February 26. Such an unprecedented decision would significantly reduce the number of pilgrims to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia, which amounted to 2.5 million visitors last year. But this measure will decrease the chances of a pandemic in the Kingdom and beyond.
Similarly, Iraq is on the alert about the spread of the coronavirus at its sacred places. These days, Shia pilgrimages to the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq are few and far between. Hotels are closed, and businesses reliant on religious tourism are beginning to suffer. The first coronavirus case found in an Iranian religious student in Najaf, another Shia holy city in Iraq, has led to a shutdown of religious sites and hotels across the city. Millions of Iranians descend to Karbala and Najaf as part of an annual religious pilgrimage to Shia holy sites. To contain the spread of the virus, Iraqi officials put a ban on entry to visitors from Iran as well as all travel to the Islamic Republic until further notice. Iraqi Airways suspended its flights to Iran.
To contain the spread of the virus, Iraqi officials put a ban on entry to visitors from Iran as well as to all travel to the Islamic Republic until further notice.
While many countries in MENA may be unprepared to handle a disease like COVID-19, a potential outbreak would be catastrophic to millions of people affected by wars and refugee crises in places such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The healthcare systems of these countries are in shambles. Any existing healthcare infrastructure and medical personnel in these countries would not be able to handle a large-scale epidemic. How to minimize the disease in crowded refugee camps, such as the Za’atari camp in Jordan with 80,000 people, and who will take care of sick people in a massive health emergency, remains unclear.
Another highly at-risk group in MENA is prisoners. Poor conditions in prisons in Iran, where insufficient access to proper nutrition and water, poor hygiene and sanitation, and overcrowded facilities make prisoners particularly vulnerable to the disease. Similar problems could arise in inhumane prison conditions in other countries around the region. To reduce the risk of spreading the virus in prisons after an inmate reportedly died from coronavirus symptoms in Evin prison in Tehran, Iranian authorities urged the judiciary on February 28 to allow a group of prisoners with health certificates to leave.
As the disease poses a major crisis to MENA, regional observers question the ability of the countries to handle it.
As the disease poses a major crisis to MENA, regional observers question the ability of the countries to handle it. The emergency in Iran laid bare the government’s inaction, incompetence, disinformation, and widespread deceptions about the scale of the epidemic. There is little trust in the government after four Iranian officials contracted the virus, while insisting that there was no health crisis in the country. Some Iranian doctors admit that the epidemic in the country is far worse than officially reported, partly because politicians sought to minimize the problem to avoid low turnout in parliamentary elections that took place on February 23.
International sanctions also played a role in Iran’s weak response to the virus. Critical medical respiratory machines and medicine are in short supply due to the sanctions. There are fears that incompetence, lack of proper resources, and poor health services in other countries may widen the epidemic in the region.
The Council of Arab Ministers of Health, a regional body that coordinates improvement of basic health services in the Arab world, called for an emergency meeting of regional experts in March to evaluate plans on how to combat COVID-19. In a February 28 statement, the Council urged the Arab countries to improve inter-state communication, exchange information, and maintain coordination between health organizations in the region to combat the disease. At this juncture, politics appears to be the biggest enemy to containing the disease, as evidenced in Iran, China, and the U.S.