It’s something of a riddle how Arab and Muslim states have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. In March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic, and reports of thousands of cases were pouring in from all over the globe, it was hard to ignore the astonishing data from most Arab states, whose populations number in the tens of millions and generally do not enjoy world-class healthcare systems.

Other than Iran, which was badly affected by COVID, and reported tens of thousands of cases and hundreds of dead, most Arab states supplied only partial numbers that did not reflect how fast the virus was truly spreading within their borders. At first, many refrained from closing their borders or instating restrictions on movement and public gatherings. Still, once the countries that have a centralized regime and a strong centralized government decided on a policy of isolation and lockdowns, it helped stop the spread of the virus, but also did major damage to their economies.

Jordan, for example, completely shut down its air, land and sea borders from March 14 to the beginning of Aug. 2020. Since then, only people arriving from “green” countries have been allowed into the kingdom, and only if they show proof of a negative COVID test. The Jordanian government also announced a series of actions to prevent gatherings, including scheduled closings and reopenings of schools, business and public services. Egypt also instates localized closures based on outbreaks.

In countries like Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq, where civil wars are raging and armed militias control part of the territory, and Lebanon—on the verge of economic collapse—only a few dozen confirmed cases were reported in the first months of the pandemic. There were questions about their reliability.

There was also concern that if the regimes hid the true numbers about the spread of the virus, it would cause the already difficult humanitarian situation in those places to worsen, and cause the healthcare systems, such as they are, to be overwhelmed and unable to provide even a minimum of care.

Still, all the experts with whom Israel Hayom spoke agreed that it would be impossible to secure accurate data from these countries, since other than the WHO and some international volunteer groups, there is no one who can reliably track carriers and their condition.

According to Egyptian anthropologist Dr. Ayman Hajj Yousef, many researchers of Islamic cultures think that the low COVID numbers reported by Arab states are the result of “the strict Islamic lifestyle.”

“In states like these, a person who gets COVID might be seen as someone who doesn’t have enough faith, or as someone who is punished by Allah for a lack of faith, or for doing things that go against Islamic values,” says Yousef.

Another reason for the low COVID numbers in Arab states is that they have young populations compared to western countries. Arab states see high mortality over age 65 and high birth rates, which means that half their populations are under age 60, and therefore not in high-risk groups.

“Young people who contracted COVID and showed minor symptoms, or had no symptoms at all, don’t get tested, for many different reasons,” explains Hajj Yousef. “The faulty healthcare system, bad financial situation, or shame, for example. At the start of the pandemic, there were assessments that no matter how much [countries] tried to hide the true figures, at a certain stage the extent of the horrors would be exposed and victims would be buried in mass graves, or their bodies would be burned. Or that hospitals would be overwhelmed with cases and collapse. It later turned out that wasn’t the case.”

“We do know about hospitals in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and even the Palestinian Authority that were at full capacity, and in eastern Cairo, Islamists even set fire to a COVID ICU ward two weeks ago, killing six patients. The people who set the fire wanted to send the message that COVID patients were sinners, and it was a punishment they deserved. But apart from that, we haven’t heard about unusual cases in Arab countries,” observes Hajj Yousef.

‘COVID held a mirror up to Arab rulers’

Former Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate head Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, now a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, expresses doubt about the veracity of official COVID numbers reported by Arab countries.

“According to their official figures, most of them have managed to stop the spread of the virus. But you can’t forget that these are countries whose official tallies no one really takes seriously, since the real numbers are much bigger than what is officially announced by the authorities,” Kuperwasser says.

As COVID continued to spread, a major concern in the West was that the virus could cause a vacuum of power in Arab countries that might bring down regimes and result in extremist entities like al-Qaida or the Islamic State taking over. Other chilling scenarios entailed pro-Iranian Shiite militias gaining footholds in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, or the return of governments who espoused the views of the Muslim Brotherhood. That didn’t happen.

“Nothing really changed there because of COVID,” says Kuperwasser. “Most of the countries went on as usual during the pandemic, taking various steps to stop the spread, such as closures. COVID served as material for opposition factors who criticized the regimes, but posed no threat to the regimes themselves. The opposite—I would say that in certain countries, because there was a sense that ‘everyone was in it together,’ the population united behind the regimes and there was no major criticism. In places where there are internal conflicts, like Syria or Yemen, they continued. So did the protests in Iraq and Lebanon.”

Middle East scholar Dr. Michael Barak of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya thinks that “COVID held a mirror up to Arab rulers and showed them that no one is immune to the pandemic, so if they wanted to maintain their regimes’ stability, they needed to address the pandemic and find ways to deal with it.”

He explains: “One of the main concerns that came up was that the pandemic would provide an opportunity for Islamist terrorist organizations, who might take advantage of the fact that all over the world, security forces were busy keeping public order.

“The terrorist groups saw this as a perfect time, because a period of global chaos is the time to step up attacks. COVID gave extremist Islamist terrorist organizations like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc. ‘justification’ for the claim that [the pandemic] was the hand of God, a punishment for heretics. For ISIS, it was a godly event that represented God’s promise that ISIS would rise again, like a phoenix, and be restored to greatness. We are seeing the organization gain strength in its second-tier areas, like Sinai, Nigeria and West Africa.

“The Islamist organizations are telling themselves and the world that ‘God sent a soldier named COVID,’ and the heretics can’t fight it. They used the panic over COVID for propaganda, to improve their image. Al-Qaeda, for example, whose popularity has been waning since the advent of ISIS and the assassination of Osama bin Laden, used the fear and anxiety in Arab states to disseminate Islamist propaganda.

“The organization put out messages in English and Arabic on the Internet and social media, telling Westerners, ‘The world is changing, and you in the West should look at yourselves. Why are people in the west being so badly hurt by the pandemic? Look at how you can improve your lifestyles, so that Allah will protect you from COVID. Converting to Islam is the way.'”

Whether COVID was sent by God or not, most Arab states will soon begin vaccinating at-risk populations. Vaccinations will be available to the general population only around the end of March.

Countries like Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Sudan, as well as the P.A., will be receiving large shipments from the international COVAX initiative, of which most nations of the world, including Israel, are members. All member nations commit to contribute part of their own stocks of vaccines to a shared supply earmarked for impoverished nations. Additional aid from the WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank, international pharmaceutical companies and philanthropists aims to ensure that each state receives a fair “dose” of vaccines, even if they can’t pay for them.

COVID-19 vaccines arrive at the Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat on Dec. 21, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

A look at the numbers (as of Jan. 8, 2021)

Palestinian Authority and Gaza

Population: 4 million

Cases: 144,257

Deaths: 1,519

“The Palestinians in Judea and Samaria took the fight against COVID a little more seriously than the neighboring Arab states did, because of fear about how the pandemic would impact the economy,” says Kuperwasser.

“On the other hand, every morning they attend huge mass prayer services at Al-Aqsa Mosque and insist on ignoring orders banning public gatherings, and hurt their own health and that of their loved ones. Beyond that, they saw COVID as more leverage to slander Israel as being responsible for everything that happens in the world, especially to them,” he adds.

Barak explains that “the situation in Gaza is getting worse from every perspective–humanitarian, medical, economic and employment. In Gaza, there is also a serious problem of addiction to painkillers, especially among the young and unemployed. Because Hamas uses harsh measures against the population, such as isolating confirmed cases in quarantine centers in the southern Gaza Strip, where conditions are atrocious … and the isolation is enforced through coercion and threats, we can assume that the Gaza population is becoming bitter. Still, we can’t say this is a situation that poses a threat to the Hamas regime.”

“COVID has also led to an increase in emigration from Gaza to Europe. At least a few tens of thousands, apparently 40,000 to 60,000 Palestinians from Gaza, have left, mostly to Turkey or Italy,” notes Barak, adding that suicide—particularly among young Gazans—is increasing.”

Jordan

Population: 10 million

Cases: 302,856

Deaths: 3,955

The Jordanian Health Ministry has approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in the kingdom, and Amman has already signed a purchase agreement with the American pharma giant that should secure enough vaccines for its entire population. The vaccines are slated for arrival in February, at which point the government will launch a free vaccination campaign.

Barak: “Even before COVID, Jordan was suffering from a serious social and economic crisis. It has more than a million refugees from Syria, which has forced the government to invest in infrastructure and jobs. COVID also led to a drop in funding from Gulf states, because the Jordanians feared that the Muslim Brotherhood would start inciting its population.

“The king of Jordan doesn’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood—and tensions in the kingdom are growing and will increase further when the vaccination campaign starts because expectations are that the vaccines will be prioritized and Jordanian Palestinians, the majority, will be vaccinated after the Bedouin minority, which enjoys privileges.”

Egypt

Population: 90 million

Cases: 144,583

Deaths: 7,918

The Treasury in Cairo has signed a deal with China’s Sinopharm for 20 million vaccines, and Egyptian media reports that 100,000 have already arrived, but Egypt’s medical workers or at-risk population still hasn’t started getting jabbed. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said that the vaccination campaign would likely get underway only in July 2021, without explaining why. However, the U.N. thinks that because Egypt is home to some 20 million non-citizens, it wants to make sure that it has enough vaccines for its own people.

Barak says that most civil-society leaders in Egypt have pitched in to help the authorities, including aid agencies, Sunni religious organizations, the Coptic Church and the military. Their support for el-Sissi’s policies, which included lockdowns, keeping back vaccines until the entire population can be vaccinated and closing down the country’s tourism sector despite the economic costs, have bolstered the president’s legitimacy.

“The worst crisis in Egypt is the economic one. Even before COVID, Egypt was seeing huge population growth, without solutions for housing or jobs. COVID highlights these problems, especially because tourism has been hit. The health-care system in Egypt is also in crisis after COVID exposed its problems. About 250 doctors and other medical staff died after contracting COVID. All this is fertile ground for subversive elements, but at this stage, there is still broad support for el-Sissi,” he says.

Syria

Population: 17 million

Cases: 11,890

Deaths: 741

The drawn-out war in Syria and the lack of a functioning central government in Damascus have caused the Syrian Health Ministry to avoid announcing updates about COVID figures.

Barak says the situation in Syria is “very complicated,” because the country is breaking apart into areas controlled by different entities, and the Assad government is not functioning.

For now, reports about COVID in Syria are coming from WHO staff stationed in Damascus. Last week, they announced that there was no way of knowing how many vaccines that Syria would be getting or when they would arrive. The WHO, UNICEF and COVAX will be helping Syria bring in enough vaccines for at least 3 million people. But because of the chaos, it appears likely that those vaccines will go to Syrians who work for foreign organizations and companies that will take the lead in ensuring their personnel are vaccinated.

Lebanon

Population: 7 million

Cases: 199,925

Deaths: 1,550

As they have throughout the pandemic, the Lebanese are still reporting low numbers of confirmed COVID cases, but there is virtually no voluntary testing. The government does not have the funds to procure or process testing kits.

Lebanon provides its citizens with only basic medical services. But each ethnic group in the country (Sunni Muslims, Shi’ites and Christians) has its own healthcare system. The Shi’ites, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, operate community clinics and hospitals in Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon that are funded by Iran. Only Shi’ite Lebanese are treated. Similar systems operate in the Sunni and Christian communities.

However, the Lebanese government recently announced that it had closed an $18 million deal with Pfizer for 1.5 million vaccines, which are slated to be delivered in February. The vaccines will be administered at no cost. Lebanon has also joined COVAX and is scheduled to receive another 2.2 million vaccines from the program in the third quarter of 2021.

Lebanon also plans to vaccinate the 700,000-strong population of Syrian, Palestinian, Yazidi, Kurdish and other refugees in the country, although they will be last in line. The number 700,000 is what Lebanon’s Health Ministry is quoting, although according to U.N. estimates, the country’s refugee population actually numbers 1.5 million to 2 million.

Barak: “Hezbollah will try to take advantage of COVID and present itself as caring about national interests. The organization is trying to position itself as a national entity and obscure its involvement in the Syrian civil war.”

Iran

Population: 81 million

Cases: 1,261,903

Deaths: 55,830

Iran is the only country in the Middle East to report worrying morbidity and mortality numbers from the start of the crisis. The Islamic Republic is currently in the midst of a third wave of coronavirus, and the harsh U.S. sanctions on the Iranian regime are not helping it stop the spread.

Iran’s central bank has announced that the WHO and COVAX have helped it obtain 16.8 million vaccines, paid for by Iranian assets frozen in South Korea. Some of the money will go to Pfizer to pay for a few million vaccines. The Iranians are also trying to negotiate with Moderna and AstraZeneca. Iran needs 120 million doses to vaccinate its entire population, but due to sanctions, banks are unwilling to process the payments.

Meanwhile, Iran plans to use vaccines developed by Russia and China. According to Kuperwasser, at the beginning of the pandemic, Iran was one of the only countries in the world to keep its borders open to flights from China, which contributed to the spread of the virus.

“When it comes to strategic issues, like the question of the nuclear deal, which is back on the table, the Iranians expect the Chinese to be on their side, partly because of how they behaved during COVID. It’s another reason for them to buy the Chinese vaccine, besides its relatively low cost compared to the vaccines developed in the West.”

Iran expects to start vaccinating its people soon, although no date has been set. Once underway, the project is likely to take a few months.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Health Ministry announced two weeks ago that first-stage clinical trials on a locally developed vaccine had concluded. The head of the development project, whose daughter was one of the 56 volunteers in the first trial, said that the vaccine was expected to be 90 percent effective.

Morocco

Population: 36 million

Cases: 447,081

Deaths: 7,618

Morocco has purchased 10 million vaccines from China’s Sinopharm, which are expected to arrive shortly, and the country expects to begin vaccinating as soon as possible.

Saudi Arabia

Population: 34 million

Cases: 363,377

Deaths: 6,272

Saudi Arabia recently approved the Pfizer vaccine and purchased millions of vials. According to Saudi media reports, 90 percent of the vaccines acquired are from Pfizer, with the rest from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and the Russians.

The vaccines began arriving in December.

Throughout the pandemic, the Saudis took comparatively harsh steps to curb the spread of the virus, like closing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the Haj pilgrimage—an unprecedented step. The closure is expected to remain in effect for Ramadan 2021, which begins on April 12.

“That step did not significantly harm the government’s stability. Of course, a lot of religious people didn’t like it, but everyone understood that in conditions like these, the pilgrimage wasn’t a realistic prospect, and despite the tensions between the various streams of Islam, like the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, all religious leaders backed the decision,” says Kuperwasser.

Barak says that the Saudis are eager to see an end to the crisis, among other reasons, because of the drop in oil prices, which has bitten into the kingdom’s profits and salaries it pays to state employees, causing resentment. However, because Saudis are not allowed to demonstrate against the royal family, criticism is mostly being voiced on social media.

“Because of the economic crisis and the drop in oil profits, even before COVID, the Saudis are starting to enter new markets, like airlines and tourism … and developing solar energy and [other] alternative energy initiatives,” he says.

Meanwhile, residents of the Gulf states Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait who had the bad luck to contract COVID received first-rate medical treatment.

Bahrain was the first country in the world to start vaccinating its citizens, even before Israel. While Bahrain is keeping its exact numbers under wraps, its health-care authorities reported that it had acquired “millions” of vaccines from Russia and China, and later on from Pfizer. The same goes for the other Gulf states, which have also begun vaccinating their general populations.

Shahar Klaiman and Dean Shmuel Elmas contributed to this report.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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