Analysis

In Arab Countries, Coronavirus Patients Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent

COVID-19 is sometimes seen as a punishment from the heavens, and many people won’t let medical professionals into their homes for fear of the stigma

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A foreign worker being tested for the coronavirus in Dubai, April 15, 2020.
A foreign worker being tested for the coronavirus in Dubai, April 15, 2020. Credit: Karim Sahib / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Coronavirus patients have become marked people in our society. They are alone in their illness and they die silently,” Sahar al-Ghara wrote in Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

Writer Dandrawi al-Harawi added in Al-Youm Al-Sabaa: “The Egyptians were once known for their solidarity, their good neighborliness. The joy of one was shared by all, and the misfortune of one was also shared by all.” But the coronavirus has exposed society’s bad side.

As Harawi put it, “We were all surprised to see in recent days the phenomena of assailing and recoiling from those infected by the coronavirus. One family refused to accept a woman’s corpse for fear of being infected …. This is a shocking blow to Egyptian culture and Egyptians’ customs of showing respect to the dead.”

He recounted a case in which residents of a village challenged a plan to bury in their cemetery a female doctor who had died of COVID-19. They put up resistance when the ambulance arrived from a hospital that specifically handles coronavirus cases.

Relatives clashed with village residents who demanded that the corpse be buried elsewhere; only by the intervention of the security forces was she buried in her own village.

“Becoming ill with corona is not a mark of Cain” is not only the headline of articles aiming to persuade people to change their minds about the thousands of patients. It’s also the slogan of government officials in Arab countries seeking to encourage their citizens to test for the virus and help curb the spread of the disease.

A problem is the belief that the first coronavirus cases arose in Arab and Islamic countries as “punishment from the heavens” for the sins of believers adopting “Western defects” and a “sacrilegious lifestyle.”

Some religious scholars decided that only a return to “proper” Islam would eradicate the disease. Many compared the coronavirus to AIDS, a disease sometimes passed on by sexual relations “forbidden by religion and tradition.”

From here they explained it as a disease stemming from immorality and a scorning of religion and tradition. As they see it, one needs to keep a distance from the ill not only for fear of being infected but to boycott anyone who challenges society’s values.

Egyptian security forces cordoning off Cairo's Tahrir Square during the coronavirus crisis, March 29, 2020.
Egyptian security forces cordoning off Cairo's Tahrir Square during the coronavirus crisis, March 29, 2020. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Doctors and nurses in prison

Efforts by politicians and regular people to show that the disease also affects the observant, rich and poor alike, haven’t succeeded. Only the United Arab Emirates has barred publication of the names of coronavirus victims on social media.

The law levies fines of up to $150,000 and six months in prison for publishing such names or mocking the state’s efforts against the coronavirus. The New York Times has published an article on opposition to testing for the virus in Iraq, as these same cultural fears take hold.

For example, families are requesting that health officials not come to their homes and often don’t let medical staff enter their homes or courtyards because their very presence gets a family shunned by neighbors and even relatives.

Another factor is a lack of confidence in the health authorities and the broader governments. Hospitals in many Arab countries don’t uphold basic rules of hygiene, doctors publicize wonder drugs for COVID-19 including the use of herbs, spices and “secret potions.” Meanwhile, most hospitals are suffering a critical shortage of ventilators and medical staff.

“Anyone taken to the hospital leaves in a body bag,” someone posted on the web in Egypt. “They don’t know how to conduct an examination, they make a mockery of the sick, and they’re not held to account.”

As a result, one can’t rely on government data on the number of patients and infections. One of the harshest claims in Egypt is the government’s alleged exporting of masks and medical devices to China and Italy at a time when Egypt is short of masks and ventilators.

Private initiatives, including by aid organizations, to produce improvised ventilators have fallen short. For example, the Egyptian group Tanafas assembled about 5,000 of the devices at a third of the price that the Egyptian government is paying. But the quantity is minuscule in a country with nearly 100 million people.

Another outrageous paradox is becoming apparent in Egyptian prisons, where according to one rights group, 438 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are doing time. At the moment, the country desperately needs medical professionals after so many of them have become infected with the coronavirus while working at hospitals.

A group of imprisoned medical staff released a letter demanding their temporary release so they can battle the pandemic, but it’s doubtful the letter will have any effect because most of these inmates are political prisoners. Some are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government considers a terrorist organization.

A soldier standing guard on a nearly empty street during the fight against the coronavirus, Baghdad, April 13, 2020.
A soldier standing guard on a nearly empty street during the fight against the coronavirus, Baghdad, April 13, 2020.Credit: Hadi Mizban / AP

Racism against foreigners

The Health Ministry is believed to need about $12 billion to rehabilitate the country’s health care system and address the pandemic, which has infected an estimated 100,000 Egyptians. But the 2019-2020 budget only provides a third of that sum for health care, and the rate of testing for the virus has been a negligible 244 per million inhabitants.

The failure to combat the virus is exacerbated by prejudices impeding many people from following the directives of Arab governments. And there is also appalling racism against foreigners.

The Kuwaiti actress Hayat al-Fahad phoned a local television station and on the air called for foreigners in the country to be sent to the desert.

“When we're sick there are no hospitals for us,” she said. “Should we have to be responsible for foreigners when their countries of origin don’t want them? Isn’t there an international law that says that in a crisis, all foreigners have to leave? Get them out. Throw them out. I would even throw them in the desert.”

Fahad is not an aberration. In a video posted on social media by a hospital patient in Bahrain, a man complains that “they’ve brought us 250 foreign laborers, and another 200 Asians or so will join them. Where will Bahrainis go if the foreigners come? Why not isolate them in their dorms? We’re afraid of them.”

As he put it, “The culture and customs of these Asians are different from ours. They don’t know how to correctly use the lavatory .... I demand that the authorities consider the issue as soon as possible.”

When hospital patients mention dormitories, it’s an allusion to crowded housing in teeming neighborhoods where there is no chance for sterile conditions or even reasonable social distancing.

In any case, the complaints are being heard loud and clear by the authorities, who have threatened that any country refusing to take back its nationals working in a Gulf emirate could suffer sanctions. These include rescinding the employment agreements under which the foreign laborers are employed. Even in ordinary times these workers are discriminated against and treated like machines needed because Gulf citizens won’t accept certain jobs.

The foreigners can take some comfort that their status is similar to local people who have been infected with the virus and now must hide their illness if they want to be buried in their own villages. And as Sahar al-Ghara wrote, “Where we live, coronavirus patients are guilty until proven innocent.”