The effects of the pandemic on the Middle East Mediterranean region

How are Middle East Mediterranean countries reacting to the ongoing crisis, which adds to the existing fragility and geopolitical tensions? Dr Federica Frediani, coordinator of the USI Middle East Mediterranean Freethinking Platform, and Berat Kjamili from Turkey, young change-maker at last year’s MEM Summer Summit organised by USI, talk to us about this issue in a video.

The countries of the Middle East Mediterranean region, too, were taken by surprise and badly hit by the Coronavirus pandemic. The fragility of their healthcare system or lack of adequate health facilities, weak economic systems, the absence of social protection policies and programmes, long-standing conflicts and the presence of a very vulnerable population: all of these things meant that these countries were unprepared to manage an emergency of such magnitude.  It is hardly possible to enforce social distancing and to ensure access to basic sanitation in overcrowded refugee camps, when - as is the case in Jordan and Lebanon - the number of refugees and displaced persons has risen to millions. The economic and financial performance of the Middle East Mediterranean countries was expected to improve in 2020, but the pandemic has dramatically overturned forecasts.

The situation varies from country to country and statistics remain unclear as to how many people are infected and how many have died. This is due, not only to the reluctance of certain governments to disclose precise numbers, but also to the fact that tests, adequate health facilities and information are not available. The number of cases of infection seems to be relatively lower in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe, Asia and the United States, and in some countries there seems to have been a slight decrease in the number of new cases reported. This is according to a statement (dated 28 April) by Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, Director General of the Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean of the World Health Organization (for updated information on the 22 countries that make up the Eastern Mediterranean area, see the  WHO  website, under the Eastern Mediterranean region).  

The Covid-19 has exposed, in some cases accelerated, the fragile structure of the political, economic and social systems and brought to light critical issues that have long been present in the region. Governments have imposed draconian measures to stem the spread of the virus, but are now facing a deep economic, political and social crisis triggered in part by the serious effects of the lockdown on the poorest, who often "find employment" in the informal economy and who do not have adequate financial resources to survive. The first country to be hit by the spread of Covid-19, from East to West, was Iran. Already suffering as a result of U.S. sanctions and with China’s strong economic presence on the territory, it has been one of the worst-hit countries globally.

New geopolitical balances
Researchers are not unanimous over the effects of a pandemic on conflict evolution, since relatively few studies have been done on the subject. Yet, undoubtedly, Coronavirus has had, and continues to have, a serious impact on countries marked by conflicts, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, characterised by political fragmentation and unequal distribution of humanitarian aid in different areas. The situation is no less complex in Lebanon, where the health emergency has surprised a country in the grips of a protracted political crisis, a country on the verge of financial collapse, with food prices spiralling.
The sharp drop in oil demand and prices is having shortand long-term consequences for oil producing countries; but it is bound to have major consequences for Europe, too, in particular for the Mediterranean countries. The result may well be new geopolitical balances (for more information on these issues, please refer to the conference by Prof. Gilles Kepel, Covid-19 et crise pétrolière available here and to  Les pouvoirs en place au Moyen-Orient seront comptables de manière exacerbée de leur gestion de la crise ).

With mobility and free circulation banned, tourism has come to a standstill in most countries of the Middle East Mediterranean region, where it is a main source of livelihood. At this time of defensive closure of borders and cautious national retreat, it will be crucial to think about inclusive reconstruction strategies that take into account the close interconnection between the various countries of the Middle East Mediterranean. It will also be important to make room for initiatives proposed by civil society. Resilience depends on our ability to look and on our willingness to take on the problems of our neighbours

The video by Berat Kjamili
Berat Kjamili, young change-maker of the MEM Summer Summit 2019, talks about his experience of lockdown in Turkey and the organisation of the Coronathon Turkey (coronaturkiye.com), which brought together social entrepreneurs, universities, and non-governmental organisations. This initiative was in response to a cancelled trip to Switzerland to accept an award for social entrepreneurship.