On Thursday the 2nd of April, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Middle Eastern governments that they must at quickly to limit the spread of COVID-19. On March 26, when the global number of COVID-19 cases passed one million, the total number of cases in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region had reached 58,168. However, health officials are concerned this number does not reflect the reality of the situation.
Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO’s Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, made a statement on Thursday addressing the COVID-19 situation in the area. “New cases have been reported in some of the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems,” al-Mandhari said. “Even in countries with stronger health systems, we have seen a worrying spike in the numbers of cases and deaths reported.” He urged that governments in the area respond rapidly, saying “We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day.” As director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, al-Mandhari is responsible for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries. Some of these nations were facing significant internal crisis prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the region, fueling concerns.
Barring Iran, the number of cases in the Middle East and North Africa has been relatively low compared to Europe, the United States, and Asia. To some, this might indicate a successful response to COVID-19 in the region. However, with so many other nations faltering in the face of this strain of coronavirus, it is unlikely that the MENA nations are exceptions to the international trend. The more likely reason for the lower number of cases, and the major fear of health officials, is that these countries are currently under-reporting the number of cases present. This is not an accusation of misconduct by health officials. Instead, it is genuine concern that these nations are unaware of, or unable to fully determine, the enormity of the threat. This particular region of the world, having been a hotspot for domestic and international conflict for the past few decades, is particularly afflicted by issues of weak governmental control, and diminished health systems. As such, an under-reporting of case numbers appears more likely than the apparently-low numbers currently present.
The nation which is currently positioned to be worst-hit by COVID-19, and the one that international health officials are especially concerned about, is Yemen. For five years, Yemen has been engulfed by a civil war which has seen the collapse of infrastructure and major institutions in the nation. Al-Jazeera reports that 24 million of its population of 29 million need humanitarian assistance. Compounding these issues is that there are no doctors in 19 per cent of the country’s districts, healthcare workers have not been paid for at least two years, and the nation is already fighting epidemics of cholera, diphtheria, and dengue fever. There are currently no confirmed coronavirus cases in Yemen, but whether this is an accurate reflection of the situation is uncertain. An outbreak in the area would spread like wildfire, impacting the lives of millions. Libya, another nation currently dealing with civil war, could become another COVID-19 hotspot. International organizations are particularly worried that in Libya, a number of refugees and asylum-seekers are significantly at-risk.
The MENA region is particularly at-risk in this time of crisis, with nations like Libya and Yemen unable to respond effectively at this present time. If the virus spreads unchecked in these nations, thousands in the region will die. Coupled with internal conflict and displacement, there is a major risk of further disease transfer throughout the region. It is crucial that nations which have managed to halt the spread of COVID-19 do what they can to assist those nations which have not. To successfully manage this pandemic, a massive international response is required.