Virus or No Virus, Misery in the Middle East is Constant
Written by Arkoprabho Hazra
Senior Editor at Law & Order
Young India Fellow, Ashoka University; BA (Political Science) Amity University, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
“Us Yemenis, we're not scared of the disease because it comes from God, while we could die each day from enemy airstrikes.", said Ahmed Abdel Karim, a laborer in the city of Sanaa, to Reuters.
The Middle East, ravaged by conflict –– civil wars in Syria and Yemen, clashes between civilians and government forces in Lebanon over the national economic crisis, growing terrorist activities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the violent tussle between Israel and Palestine, and the eruption of sectoral violence –– makes an interesting study during the pandemic situation.
While the rest of the world has deemed the COVID-19 pandemic to be a primary concern in present times, the coronavirus seems to be a secondary concern for people in the Middle East. The primary concern remains the fear of death due to starvation or military attacks.
This article delves into this very notion, as it attempts to analyze how the people in the Middle East fear a lack of proper health facilities, food insecurity, the conflict between warring parties, famine, and bankruptcy more than they fear the COVID-19 virus. Different academics discuss a post-COVID world order (Allen et al., 2020), but there seems to be no change in the conflicted regions of the Middle East, where violence hasn’t stopped and the misery remains sempiternal.
Lebanon has been one of the Middle Eastern countries to look at, apart from Yemen, wherein citizens of Lebanon as well as refugees –– mainly from Syria –– have been vocal about not being bothered by the novel coronavirus as much as by starvation and the economic crises afflicting the country.
The fear of the virus spreading throughout refugee camps across the world has heightened due to the cramped spaces in which refugees reside, as this restricts the provision of social distancing. However, in the Medyen refugee camp situated in Bar Elias –– 15 km from the Syrian border –– a first-hand account from one refugee brings to light the fact that these refugees are more scared about the prospect of starving to death than contracting the virus (Hodali, 2020). The recent cases in Lebanon about Syrian refugees not wanting to get themselves tested for coronavirus showcases how they are ready to put up with the virus rather than going to test centers and risking deportation back to Syria (Fordham, 2020). In war-torn Syria, the current President, Bashar Al Assad has refused to let the World Health Organisation operate in areas not governed by his regime. Due to this, the Kurdish-held areas of Syria, wherein Pro-Turkey forces have already cut off the supply of water and other essential services, have been further deprived of international assistance.
Institutional paralysis caused by dictatorial regimes renders international organizations helpless in terms of providing humanitarian aid in conflict zones. Even if international organizations are able to surpass the barrier enforced by the pandemic, they are seldom able to operate beyond the limits imposed by state sovereignty. (Alaaldin, 2020)
Simultaneously, Lebanese citizens have also considered the coronavirus to be less threatening than the economic crunch that the people face in the country. A northern city in Lebanon, Tripoli –– once known as the economic powerhouse of Lebanon –– has been widely affected due to the neglect of the government towards the economy and armed conflict between the Sunnis and Alawites. This has led Tripoli to become the most impoverished city in Lebanon, lately.
The World Bank has warned that poverty will rise in Tripoli by a further 50 percent if the financial crisis carries on. (Al Jazeera, 2020)
Due to the economic crises in Lebanon, even the charity organizations that used to help people in this city have not been able to provide proper meals to the people in Tripoli (Trew, 2020). Journalist Alia Ibrahim, who was born and brought up in Tripoli, sums up how the population is not bothered about COVID-19 at all. She told The Independent, “If you are telling people ‘you risk getting the virus or you are definitely going to starve’, they will choose to fight hunger.”
Another aspect to look into is the humanitarian assistance sent to different regions of conflict in the Middle East. Providing humanitarian assistance has been a problem in areas of conflict during the pandemic, due to lockdown measures that have been enforced in many regions of the world. This has made it difficult for organizations to reach vulnerable populations in the region with the necessary aid (Nebehay, 2020). At the same time, we must not forget that reaching out to such populations was difficult, even during normal times –– when the pandemic was not there –– due to on-going conflicts between warring parties that blocked any humanitarian assistance to reach people in need (Fordham, 2016).
Having realized what the situation is on the ground in different Middle Eastern nations, a conclusion can be drawn regarding how we can assess the region of the Middle East during the pandemic.
Drawing from the above observations, it would be wrong to assess a different regional order in the Middle East post-COVID-19 because situations in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon show how the problems that they have been facing would have been there, irrespective of a pandemic coming into the picture. The only change that can be observed is the constant worsening of the situation than it was before.
For example, the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic has heightened the worries surrounding the accessibility of humanitarian assistance to people in need, but it isn’t something new. Even before humanitarian assistance reaching people in need was in question, as mentioned above.
The most crucial indicator of the Middle East’s worsening scenario is the structural economic impacts because of the changes within the global oil supply sector due to the pandemic. Most Middle Eastern countries rely on their natural reserves of oil and natural gas and have export-led economies. Besides the humanitarian and governance-related challenges that have come with the pandemic, countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya amongst other Gulf Cooperation Council member states will suffer due to the crash of the global oil market. “Global oil prices are currently hovering between $20-$30 a barrel and a deep global recession is looming if not already here.” This major long-term change that has been projected is set to worsen the economy –– piling on to the existing economic crises of the present situation. (Burrows, Engelke, 2020)
Thus, stakeholders –– governments, humanitarian organizations, international organizations, etc. –– involved in the region need to reassess their priorities with a major focus on tackling starvation. A plan of action to circumvent the issues of structural economic problems due to the approaching oil crisis, the limits imposed by dictatorial regimes, the issues plaguing refugees, the presence of terrorist groups such as ISIS, on-going instability, war, territorial conflicts, food insecurity, and the provision of humanitarian aid are the need of the hour in the Middle East. International organizations and nations must work together to make the institutional changes necessary to increase the accessibility of humanitarian aid in this region. If not, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate with or without the pandemic.
1. Alaaldin, Ranj. (2020, April 24) COVID-19 will prolong conflict in the Middle East. Brookings.
2. Allen, J., Burns, N., Garrett, L., Haass, R. N., Ikenberry, G. J., Mahbubani, K., & Walt, S. M. (2020, March 20). How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/20/world-order-after-coroanvirus-pandemic/
3. Burrows, Matthew J. Engelke, Peter. (2020, April 23) Middle East turmoil even before pandemic hits. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/shaping-post-covid-world-together/middle-east-turmoil-even-before-pandemic-hits/
4. Fordham, A. (2016, July 12). The Siege That Keeps A Rebel Town In Syria Desperate For Food Aid. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/07/12/484946410/the-siege-that-keeps-a-rebel-town-in-syria-desperate-for-food-aid
5. Fordham, A. (2020, April 06). Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Fear Deportation For Seeking Coronavirus Test Or Care. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/06/825158835/syrian-refugees-fear-deportation-if-they-seek-coronavirus-testing-and-treatment
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8. Nebehay, S. (2020, April 16). Coronavirus could cause upheaval across Middle East - Red Cross. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-mideast-redcross/coronavirus-could-cause-upheaval-across-middle-east-red-cross-idUSKCN21Y1BT
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