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Virus measures eased in Middle East

12 June 2020

Fatalities fewer than expected, but figures may not tell full story

Saudi Press Agency/Reuters

Friday prayers while observing social distancing in the Masjid Al-Nabawi mosque in Madina, Saudi Arabia, on 5 June

Friday prayers while observing social distancing in the Masjid Al-Nabawi mosque in Madina, Saudi Arabia, on 5 June

THE coronavirus pandemic has resulted in fewer fatalities in the Middle East and North Africa than many had feared, figures issued by the various governments suggest. But, in a region dominated by autocratic rule, and where transparency is minimal, the statistics almost certainly do not tell the full story.

Nevertheless, in general, extended curfews and tight border controls appear to have helped countries in the region to contain the disease more successfully than those in some other parts of the world. Churches and mosques in the Holy Land have reopened, with compulsory self-distancing measures, as lockdowns are slowly eased.

Critics of official statistics point in particular to Iran, which has been hit hardest in the region. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that close to 8000 people have died of coronavirus, out of a population of 82 million. Given the many anecdotal reports of the rapid and devastating spread of the disease across this vast country, the total number of fatalities acknowledged by the authorities seems implausibly small.

Egypt is the largest Arab state, home to about 100 million people. Official figures show just over 1000 fatalities. Again, transparency is open to question. The Bishop in Egypt with North Africa & the Horn of Africa, Dr Mouneer Anis, said: “The Egyptian authorities are doing their best to cope with the pandemic by following WHO regulations. We had more than three weeks complete lockdown and we are reopening gradually.”

To begin with, it was difficult, Dr Anis continued, because “Egyptians are very much people-oriented; they like to socialise. But with the rise in the number of infections, increasing health awareness, and firm regulations, the people gradually responded, especially in urban areas.”

The diocese “contributed to the disaster fund, and to the Egyptian foodbank, which helped millions of poor families, and we distributed assistance grants to all our congregations to help the poor in their areas”.

In Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab Gulf country, WHO figures record 500 deaths, in a population — Saudi and expatriate — of 30 million. The disease spread fastest in densely packed city districts that house expatriate labourers, where a higher fatality rate might have been expected. A Saudi columnist acknowledged that “these areas are the focal point because of the unclean environment and overcrowding. We need to take strong measures to eliminate the scourge of slums.” Tens of thousands of Asian workers have returned home from the Gulf, many inevitably carrying the coronavirus with them.

While the overall Middle Eastern picture is one of gradual improvement, there are concerns for the fate of Yemen and the Gaza Strip. In both, thus far, the disease has been contained, but with the potential for catastrophe if it were to spread. The latest WHO figures show just 81 deaths in Yemen.

But, in the view of Helen Lackner, a Yemen expert who lived in the country for many years, “We have no idea what the situation is because there’s no central authority to collect data. But I estimate that the number of cases must be in the thousands. Health facilities are as prepared as they can be, in the circumstances, but only half are even partially functioning. Given their weakness, lack of funding and equipment, they’re clearly inadequate in relation to the needs.”

The Gaza Strip is home to more than two million Palestinians crammed into a tiny pocket of land. The director of the Anglican-funded Al Ahli Arab Hospital, in Gaza City, Suhaila Tarazi, said that “At the moment, everything is controlled. There have been 61 cases: 18 recovered and one died. But with the collapse of the health-care system, we’re at high risk. The health ministry has 61 ventilators, and there are 39 in non-government hospitals. We’re very unprepared for a Covid-19 outbreak.”

Also in short supply is the reagent for conducting diagnostic lab tests. Most are carried out on people arriving from outside; so there is no clear picture of how the disease might be spreading elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. “We’re closely monitoring the situation,” Ms Tarazi said. “If it’s discovered in our wider community, we will have a real disaster situation.”

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