Analysis |

In the Middle East, Coping With the Coronavirus Is a Laughing Matter

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A medical staff member prepares to check the temperature of a man arriving from Iran over fears of the novel coronavirus, Najaf airport, Iraq, March 15, 2020.
A medical staff member prepares to check the temperature of a man arriving from Iran over fears of the novel coronavirus, Najaf airport, Iraq, March 15, 2020.Credit: ALAA AL-MARJANI/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

On the big screen in Egypt’s Al Hayat network television studio a green guest was being broadcast. The coronavirus, decorated with its spiky horns, appeared for an interview with anchorman Gaber al-Karmouty, who had already been a rich source of ridicule and laughs on his previous programs. Now the virus was ready to answer some tough questions.

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“I’m blamed for all the troubles,” the virus complains. “And what about all the other diseases? Somebody sneezes and somebody coughs, and it’s corona already,” says the virus, responding to a claim that it’s scaring the whole world. “How about if you just keep clean?” it suggests. “How about instead of cloth handkerchiefs you use paper tissues?”

Karmouty didn’t make do with this “journalistic” interview, which already went viral. He hosted a band of male and female singers who crooned a snappy tune: “Watch out, watch out for corona,” recommended that people wash their hands, wear face masks and mainly “watch out for rumors,” and then repeated the chorus: “Watch out, watch out for corona.”

In Algeria, a man calling himself Barik Mohammed posted a photo of a bulldozer preparing a gravesite, with the caption, “The Health Ministry’s preparations for dealing with the coronavirus.” A similar idea appeared on an Egyptian Twitter account: “Egypt has discovered the cure for the virus: ignoring it.” In Tunisia, the joke going around is that the virus had infected someone who immediately committed suicide out of worry and poverty.

In Morocco, someone posted on social media how the immigration authorities are keeping the virus out of the country: “Policeman to visitor: ‘Are you infected with corona?’ Visitor: ‘No.’ Policeman: ‘Do you swear by Allah?’ Visitor: ‘I swear by the great Allah.’ Policeman: ‘Come on in, welcome.’” And this, also from Egypt: “There’s no corona in Egypt because Egypt exported it to China.”

Christian Copts attend Sunday mass at the Archangel Michael Church after government instructions on preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, Cairo, Egypt, March 15, 2020. Credit: HANAA HABIB/ REUTERS

But the coronavirus jokes making the rounds in the Arab countries are not amusing everyone. Some of the tweets in Egypt ridicule government announcements that it “has the epidemic fully under control” as the main reason the country has been designated a hotbed of corona and its citizens barred from entering other Arab countries. That is, if the Egyptian people themselves don’t believe the government statements, nobody else should believe them either, and they should be careful not to come into contact with Egyptians.

The government has been harshly criticized over its policy of ambiguity in reports about the spread of the virus.

“How can the government deny that the virus is common in the country and say that only two cases have been discovered, when we hear reports of people infected with the virus who came from Egypt?” said one social media poster. And this from another: “The virus will apparently only be found in Egypt when we see President [Abdel-Fattah] al-Sissi coughing and sneezing.” Another added angrily: “I wish the virus would enter parliament and take out everybody there.”

In Iraq the virus is also a platform for vitriolic criticism of the government and its inept handling of the illness. “The virus refuses to enter Iraq because of the poor medical conditions there,” tweeted one person. And besides, “We have other illnesses that are incurable, for example bakhuna ['they robbed us'], hatfuna ['they kidnapped us'], thaluna ['they humiliated us'] and atkaluna ['they arrested us'].

These responses, psychologists say in interviews in the Arab media, are a good way of dealing with frustration and helplessness “precisely at a time when there are no other means of release, such as mass demonstrations.” Indeed, the authorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran can at least be pleased that their security forces are busy supervising people’s isolation and keeping the borders closed to foreigners, rather than suppressing protests.

Thus social media has become the only bridge left for people in Arab countries, who are becoming increasingly penned up inside their borders. Saudi Arabia canceled all flights to foreign destinations, the other Gulf states are following suit, Turkey is banning foreigners from a growing list of countries, and Egypt is conducting an inconsistent policy toward visitors – on one hand it fears the collapse of its tourism industry, on the other it recognizes the need to close its borders to retard the virus’ spread.

But along with ambiguity in policies and reporting in the Arab countries, and a lack of formal guidance to the public, social media has taken on the role of guide, whereby anyone posting becomes an expert and every rumor is validated as the truth.

A health worker disinfects the area around the Imam Hussein Shrine against the spread of the novel coronavirus in Karbala, Iraq, March 15, 2020. Credit: AFP

Suggestions to cure the virus by eating garlic, mustard or other foods are taken as verified medical instructions. On one site, a “protocol” was posted stating who might catch the disease and who is protected. The “document” relied on the zodiac and stated, for example, that the sign Taurus is itself corona and it can fight any virus in the world. So can Scopio, which attacks and kills the virus, while Aquarius “doesn’t know what it’s about, always ignores it.”

And it’s best not to shake hands with Capricorns, who pose a tangible risk. People who ignore the risk in certain astrological signs, or don’t know the sign of the person who might have shaken their hand, can still find a long list of herbal cures on the Al Buwaba site’s health section, which recommends, in addition to garlic, turmeric, ginger, anise and hot pepper.

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