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Arabs in the time of coronavirus

The struggle to cope with the spread of the coronavirus is likely to present some hard choices to Arab countries, writes Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 24 Mar 2020
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Pigeons hover above a deserted square near the souk of the Medina. Tunisia has been under curfew from 6 pm to 6 am local time (photo: AFP)
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It is the Sacred House of God.

For the nearly 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, the images of shutting down Islam’s most holy mosque in the city of Mecca, the standard-bearer of the ultra-orthodox Islam of Saudi Arabia, in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic was clearly intended to make a point. Placing public health at the heart of religious choices.

Across the Arab world, mosques have been shuttered, Friday prayers halted, sermons shortened and the movements of worshippers restricted in an attempt to crack down on the pandemic.

In Egypt, the authorities have ordered mosques to alter the usual call for prayers to instruct worshippers to pray where they are instead of flocking to mosques for collective prayers.

Worried about the spread of the Covid-19, governments in the Arab countries have ordered partial or complete lockdowns to stem the spread of the virus, including the drastic measure of closing places of worship.

By these and other measures, Arab governments and societies have begun a fierce struggle to protect people from infection, prevent economic ruin, relieve social shocks and in many cases maintain stability.

For many Arab people, the scale of the coronavirus crisis has called to mind events that have reshaped their societies in lasting ways, and many are now asking how the Arab world will look after the coronavirus pandemic.

Like other nations hit by the virus, the coronavirus has exposed the extent of three main overlapping challenges to the Arab countries: a public-health crisis, an economic crisis and a social crisis.

At the heart of the medical challenge faced by most Arab governments has been how to manage the crisis and prevent local outbreaks by implementing measures to fight the spread of the Covid-19, which has already infected more than 300,000 people worldwide and led to the deaths of thousands.

Governments across the Arab world have rushed to reinforce measures to confront the coronavirus, fearing that their fragile health systems could be swiftly overwhelmed if the disease spreads and making it extremely difficult for the authorities to stop outbreaks and prevent mass casualties.

Although the number of cases in the Arab countries are still relatively small compared to Iran or even advanced nations such as the United States, Italy and Switzerland, it is too early to know whether they have been successful in their ability to withstand the withering effects of the virus.

Many Arab countries suffer from serious shortages of protective equipment, intensive care beds, trained medical workers and physicians, making them scramble with fragile health systems and poor supplies to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Arab countries already devastated by civil conflicts seem to be the most affected. In Iraq, for example, the hospitals are often so dilapidated that public-health specialists are worried that those suspected of carrying the coronavirus have been avoiding them.

The British Independent newspaper has reported that several Iraqis who have died of the new coronavirus succumbed on the day they were admitted, suggesting that they had avoided care until they were deathly ill.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was extremely concerned about the impact of the disease caused by the new coronavirus in Libya, Syria and Yemen, all of which are ravaged by wars.

The large numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in the oil-rich Arab countries that have the best public-health systems in the region, such as Qatar, have raised concerns about the impact of the virus.

As elsewhere and beyond the obvious public-health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic will have more far-ranging consequences on the economies of the Arab countries, with those which are more fragile even facing catastrophe.

Oil prices, capital markets, tourism, travel, real estate, consumer markets, small businesses, education and entertainment have all seen major hits by the coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus has had a drastic impact on the economies of the energy producing countries in the Gulf that is expected to go beyond the structural weaknesses in their national economies to impact worker remittances by millions of Arabs working in the Gulf.

Several Gulf countries have announced emergency stimulus measures to support their economies in battles against the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. The packages of billions of dollars are meant to boost the economy through helping banks and small and medium-sized enterprises cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus outbreak is also posing an increasing threat to the economies of other Arab countries, with pressure on tourism, trade, energy imports, investment and the remittances of workers abroad.

In Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia, governments have allocated billions of dollars to combating the economic and social effects of the coronavirus. Fiscal and monetary policies have also been adjusted, such as lowering interest rates to make borrowing money cheaper and thus encouraging business investment.

However, concerns are running high that the new coronavirus will cause a recession and depression in most Arab economies, though how deep and lasting the impact will be will depend on its spread and how governments manage the outbreak.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a powerful test of social systems in the Arab world. While it is too early to say whether life in Arab societies has been transformed by the coronavirus, there are signs of cultural and social ramifications.

Though there has been some dissent, in most Arab countries, the faithful have welcomed, or at least showed no resistance to, the unprecedented decisions to close down mosques and churches and curtail religious gatherings.

Fewer Iraqi Muslim Shias participated this year in a major annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine north of Baghdad, which is also seen as an event for them to demonstrate their power of political mobilisation, for example.

Most stayed at home instead of defying a curfew imposed by the government despite calls from radical Shia groups to join the annual pilgrimage at the shrine where some five million people usually arrive at this time of year to pay their respects to a martyred Shia imam.

One prominent Coptic Christian priest in Egypt was mocked on social media for telling his congregation that if they “prayed whole-heartedly the coronavirus would walk away” from them.

In Lebanon, demonstrators against corruption and government malfunction have moved their protests to home balconies amid a national curfew.

The Arab world is not new to pandemics and to the shifts they engineer in political, economic and social relations in ways that only become apparent later.

Various parts of the Arab region were struck by outbreaks of diseases such as the plague in the Middle Ages, leading to the deaths of millions of people, serious depopulation and permanent changes in economic and social structures.

Even as recently as the 19th century, the outbreak of pandemics in the region showed how social norms and religious beliefs in the Arab region had affected people’s reactions and disease momentum

Renowned Iraqi sociologist and historian Ali Al-Wardi recorded in his works on “The Social Aspects of Modern Iraqi Society,” for example, how Muslim clergy in Iraq opposed orders by the authorities in Baghdad to quarantine those afflicted by plague, claiming that they were anti-Islamic.

Al-Wardi also detailed opposition to social distancing at the time of the plague in 1830 and a cholera pandemic in 1846 for reasons of social tradition even though people were saddled with the vital task of survival.

Scholars have detailed similar anecdotes of public opposition on religious or social grounds in other Arab countries that have been similarly afflicted by pandemics that have underlined the challenges to modernisation processes in the Arab world.

Pandemics such as cholera, or infections such as the H5N1 virus, or bird flu, or MERS, recently struck some Arab countries, severely impacting their health systems.

The new coronavirus has hit the Arab region at a time when it is already burdened with multiple problems, including a series of long-running conflicts, sectarian tensions, economic crises and widespread political unrest.

It is difficult now to assess the long-term social impacts of the shuttering of religious events, the self-isolation or the shutdowns being imposed by governments to try to stem the spread of the deadly virus while the crisis is still unfolding.

But the coronavirus pandemic could be the social and cultural game-changer that could place the Arab countries and societies on a new and different path.

No classical religious discourse or traditional social order in the Arab world will be seen to be cracking soon, but the public response to the coronavirus will call into question many old traditions in matters of faith and social norms.

In the post-coronavirus era, Arab societies will have to review many of the religious and social practices that have thus far slowed their movement to reinvent themselves as modern and advanced societies.

The shutdown of mass religious events that have proved to be dangerous multipliers of the coronavirus and the social distancing that has proved to help in softening the curve of the virus’s spread could lead to faster-evolving cultural and social currents in societies many of them still netted by tribes and extended families.

Part of the reason why this trend will continue lies in the changes that are expected to happen in the global order towards a more cooperative and human form of globalisation that will not spare the Arab region from its geopolitical, economic and cultural repercussions.

The Arabs are used to saying that calamities can be blessings in disguise. But only after the dust has settled will we be able to see if this pandemic has served a useful purpose.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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