The Middle East Is a Perfect Coronavirus Storm Waiting to Happen

Big, uncontrolled movements of people, ineffective governments and poor healthcare systems make the region unusually vulnerable.

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People wearing protective masks stand at a bus station in the Iranian capital Tehran on February 24, 202
Wearing protective masks at a bus station in Tehran, February 24, 2020.Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Even the Trump administration is starting to believe in the coronavirus, as total cases around the world surged past 82,000. Israel naturally isn't immune: It is a geographically small country with a large population concentrated in the greater Tel Aviv area, which makes the Israeli economy especially vulnerable to the quarantine and lockdown measures being used to contain the epidemic. Our healthcare system is strained.

But at least Israel’s healthcare system is functional and often excellent. The government is maintaining control over the situation, and it’s relatively easy to close our borders – a legacy of the tight restrictions that long predate the coronavirus. If there’s a global economic downturn, Israel will be swept up into it like everyone else, but at least the high-tech sector will be better able to function than a lot of other industries.

Authoritarian but oafish

The rest of the Middle East, however, is everything Israel isn’t, and it's far more vulnerable to epidemics and to any economic fallout that follows.

The vulnerability starts with the fact that even if there is little trade between the countries of the region, there’s a lot of cross-border movement of people. Pilgrims travel to Mecca and to Shiite shrines in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even Syria. There is also a huge traffic of expat workers from poorer Arab countries working in the wealthy Gulf states. The Gulf is also home to a huge population of Asian guest workers, most notably from China.

For a combination of good and bad reasons (fears of the economic consequences and misplaced religious faith, respectively), the region’s governments have been slow to act to stem this flow.  But the fact is, there is probably little they can do. Middle East regimes are characterized both by a high degree of authoritarianism (which should, in theory, make it easy to impose controls like lockdowns and border closures) and by a high degree of dysfunction and incompetence (which means in practice that the steps they take are destined to be oafish and ineffective).

The dysfunction extends to the healthcare system. Apart from the Gulf states that can pay for imported professionals and equipment, the public healthcare systems of the Middle East aren’t ready to tackle a crisis of literally epidemic proportions, if it comes. Forget hospital beds, masks and clinics: they even lack reliable health statistics on their own populations. This shortfall is made worse by the tendency of authoritarian governments to cover up bad news until it’s too late.

All of these problems are already in evidence in Iran, which has the honor of being the first country of the region to be hit by the epidemic in big numbers. For a critical period of time, the government either withheld the news that the coronavirus had arrived, or perhaps didn’t know itself.

Today, official statistics hint that the problem remains much bigger than it admits. Iran is No. 4 in the world for the number of confirmed cases, but is No. 2 in the number of deaths. Either Iranians are unusually vulnerable or the epidemic is more widespread than the authorities admit.

The spectacle of Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi’s press conference last week captured everything. While displaying the symptoms of the virus, coughing and wiping sweat from his brow, Harirchi insisted that the epidemic was under control. The next day, reality intruded and Harirchi admitted that he, too, had the virus

If all this weren’t bad enough, the Middle East contains huge healthcare black holes of failed states. In Libya, Yemen and much of Syria, nobody is in charge at all. In the latter, the government’s drive to take control of Idlib is creating a huge new population of refugees with no access to healthcare pushing across borders into Turkey and Europe.

The risk to the Middle East’s economies from the coronavirus isn’t direct as it is in China, where the government has employed draconian efficiency to contain the epidemic at the cost of an economic standstill. But the economic toll of the virus is already being imported from China, as oil prices drop from already low levels.

With so much of the country shut down, China doesn’t need nearly as much oil as usual. If the coronavirus spreads to much of the developed world, demand will fall even more. Gulf oil exporters will have to cut spending and send expats home, and that will be felt across the Middle East. 

In the end, the coronavirus may fade away before the worst happens to the region. But there is a growing school of thought that says we are entering an age of routine pandemics, whose cumulative effect will be to reverse the process of globalization. If that is the case, the Middle East is in for big trouble.

As Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes: deglobalization would put an end to the economically lucrative business of Muslim pilgrimages. It would also cause an exodus of foreign technocrats from Dubai, one the region’s rare success stories, as well as the Asian guest workers that keep the Gulf economies running.

Knights caps his prediction with a happy note by suggesting some upside to all this. Localization might be good for the region’s economies as Arabs take the jobs once performed by outsiders and rely less on imported products. Perhaps, but there will be a lot of coughing, sweating and economic convulsion before that happens.

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