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Response to virus outbreak tests governments’ preparedness

Mar 17,2020 - Last updated at Mar 17,2020

Countries in the region and beyond are shutting down as they react to an unprecedented global threat; that of the new coronavirus pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives since it first broke out in China last year. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Lebanon are in partial or full lockdown. Stringent measures are being adopted to stem the tide of new infections in a bid to contain the spread. It goes without saying that these measures will have short, medium and long-term effects on the economies of individual countries, the region and the world.

The coronavirus is now the main story as it continues to spread in the Middle East and Europe; the latter becoming the new epicenter of the disease as China appears to have finally contained it. Governments are scurrying to promote social distancing as they aim to “flatten the curve” by reducing the number of new infections. That means closing down shopping malls, restaurants, gyms, schools and universities, government offices and calling on people to avoid crowds and stay at home. International flights have been suspended by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel. How long will such measures stay in effect is the main question. The longer the shut down, the bigger the economic impact; and already there are predictions about an impending global recession.

Various reactions to the pandemic have underlined governments’ abilities to deal with a national emergency. Saudi Arabia was quick to respond effectively and strongly as soon as cases were reported. It took unprecedented measures to protect the public by suspending mass prayers at Makkah’s Grand Mosque and by closing its land borders before stopping all commercial flights. Similar steps were taken by other Gulf governments.

In contrast, the Iranian authorities were slow to react as the virus spread from Qom to other cities and provinces. By wasting valuable time in adopting measures and allowing politics to influence necessary precautionary steps, it had become a regional source for the virus, which then spread to most Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. On Sunday, Iranian authorities reported 113 deaths; the biggest single-day jump in fatalities, bringing the total number to 724, with nearly 14,000 confirmed cases. An official leading Iran’s response to the coronavirus acknowledged Sunday that the pandemic could overwhelm health facilities.

The fact that Iran is suffering under tough US sanctions notwithstanding, its failure to address the outbreak in time has increased public distrust of a system that invests its precious resources in proxy wars outside the country. The crisis has become the latest major challenge to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, who in the beginning downplayed coronavirus threat, and the unpopular government of Hassan Rouhani.

In Israel, which was quick to take precautionary measures against the outbreak, it was politics as usual as beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political survival in the wake of the latest Knesset elections results. He used the coronavirus outbreak to call on his main rival, Benny Gantz, to join him in a national unity government. But he refused to have anything to do with the Arab Joint List, which emerged as the third largest bloc with 15 seats. He also used the outbreak to push the date of his trial at least two months.

And then in a historic gesture the entire Arab Joint List lent its backing to Gantz’s Blue and White bloc, who with Avigdor Lieberman’s support and the left, had the magic 62 seats and the mandate to form a government. For now it appears that Netanyahu’s controversial career has finally come to an end; with the coronavirus symbolically claiming him as a victim.

The coronavirus may also claim another victim; President Donald Trump, who saw his callous reaction to the global outbreak, calling it a “new Democratic hoax”, result in a major crash of the stock market. By the time he declared a national emergency last week, the United States had lost at least two months of precious time to adopt measures to rein in the spread of the virus. His mishandling of the crisis has weakened his position among voters, especially as parts of the country went into lockdown, affecting businesses and the stock market. The fact that election rallies have been called off for now will also deny him the most important podium to reach and mobilize his supporters.

In a globalised world, pandemics, just like climate change and commercial interdependency will test individual governments’ abilities and preparedness. Hopefully, once the coronavirus is contained and mitigated governments will share experiences and learn from each other. More importantly, they must come together to avert the effects of a global recession that will hurt vulnerable economies.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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