The coronavirus pandemic has already officially reached more than 1.3 million people worldwide, causing over 70,000 deaths thus far. Within the Middle East, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the most affected countries. In the face of this health emergency, the States of the region are mobilizing resources. Dorothée Schmid, researcher and head of the Middle East program at the French Institute of International Relations, takes stock of the situation.
What is the epidemiological situation in the Middle East?
The epidemiological situation in the Middle East is now evolving very rapidly. The region was not the first to be affected by the COVID-19 epidemic, but lies between Asia and Europe, which have become a major breeding grounds for infection today.
Iran remains the major hotspot of contamination in the Middle East, with more than 50,000 people infected according to the authorities, with several thousands of deaths, although figures are very difficult to verify.
Are there strong measures implemented by the states in the region?
Once the reality of the epidemic was acknowledged, most countries in the Near and Middle East took fairly drastic measures to limit the contagion: the suspension of air travel with the countries that saw initial infections of the outbreak, including some European countries, along with the closing of their borders.
On the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia made the decision, very early on, to suspend the Umrah and ban access to the Kaaba, thus controlling pilgrimages, restricting access to mosques, with muezzins responsible for issuing calls for caution in some places, and then, of course, the closure of schools and the gradual banning of public gatherings. Measures to contain the population are becoming widespread just about everywhere.
Why are the figures in the Middle East not as alarming as in Europe?
The figures are not very reliable in some countries. Test capacity is limited. Egypt, for example, which is a densely populated country with a population of 100 million, seems to have a rather poor assessment of the epidemiological situation.
The possible peak of the epidemic, which will come a little later than it has in Europe, will also depend on the way in which the fairly drastic measures are taken by the various countries, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, to limit circulation and contain the epidemic. There are countries in the Middle East where the state is less effective than others. Lebanon is a country where the authorities find it very difficult to make decisions and enforce them. The Lebanese have put themselves in self-containment before hearing the government’s orders.
Are some states better prepared than others to deal with COVID-19?
The capacity of health systems to cope with this new virus, affecting the respiratory tract, is obviously unequal based on the country’s sensitivity to this type of epidemic. In the Arabian Peninsula, previous exposure to MERS has allowed the countries to adapt their equipment in accordance with WHO recommendations. It should not be forgotten that it remains the richest countries, some of which have sophisticated health equipment, that hold the ability to provide real care to their citizens.
Is research also being mobilized in the region?
To battle against COVID-19, the most sophisticated research equipment is now being mobilized. Saudi Arabia has provided WHO with a special grant to conduct this battle in the Middle East region. The countries with the best equipment are those whose health systems are already the most efficient in terms of health care delivery. As far as university research is concerned, Turkey is currently ahead of the game.