Avoiding doomsday

Hussein Haridy
Saturday 11 Apr 2020

While the international community is slowly rising to its collective responsibility in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Arab world is lagging behind

The coronavirus pandemic is still raging worldwide with the number of cases reaching over one million this last weekend, and victims reaching 51,000. Initially, experts and public health officials stressed that the elderly and those with chronic diseases are the most likely targets of this deadly virus. However, Britain registered the death of a five-year-old on Saturday, and in California a 16-year-old young man lost his life to the killer virus because he lacked medical insurance.

Into the third month of the pandemic still the international community is not ready yet to agree on an international plan of action to tackle the outbreak. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed in a telephone call Friday, 3 April, that there should be collective action to meet the dangers and challenges of Covid-19. The idea of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council meeting in this context has gained ground, but a fixed date has not yet been agreed upon. A meeting at the level of their permanent representatives at the United Nations could take place in the next few days. The G-20 that includes all the five permanent members had held a summit via videoconference two weeks ago in which member countries decided on a figure of $5 trillion earmarked for the recovery of the global economy.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution last week calling on member states to work together to defeat the virus. The concerns of the international community are not only limited to the fight against coronavirus but also on how to deal with the economic and financial consequences of the virus after the world gets over it. There is agreement that the world economy will enter a deep recession and that developing countries will be the most affected. Already 90 countries have applied for emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund. The fund announced Friday, 3 April, that it is ready to help in this respect, stressing that it has $1 trillion at its disposal to deal with the disastrous economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on the economies of these countries. But no concrete plan has been readied, yet.

The European Commission has committed to providing 100 billion Euros — a figure to be finalised — for its member states which have been greatly affected by the pandemic, like Italy, Spain and France. The idea is to have a European Fund, something akin to a Marshall Plan for Europe financed by the members in the European Union. Whether this figure will be enough to alleviate the harm done to European economies and assist them in making a quick and sustainable economic recovery remains to be seen. This proposal is a compromise solution advanced by France to overcome the opposition of the Northern Arc in the Union — the countries who have been historically attached to the principle of financial discipline — to the idea of issuing “coronabonds”. 

The Italian prime minister has called on Europe to be “more courageous and more ambitious” in its policies to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mario Centeno, president of the Eurogroup, stressed in an interview with several European newspapers 4 April that Europe has to rely on its own resources to ensure economic protection as well as a future recovery. He added that Europe is its “best and only line of defence”, and relying on the United States or anyone else is neither possible nor desirable. He outlined three measures that represent a safety net of roughly half a trillion Euros. The first is a credit line open to all member states of up to 240 billion Euros. The second is a proposal by the European Investment Bank for a pan-European guarantee fund to increase its capacity to up to 200 billion Euros. The proposed fund is destined to support European businesses, and especially small and medium-sized enterprises. In addition, the European Commission presented last Thursday, 2 April, a backstop for employment protection schemes up to 100 billion Euros. On the other hand, the European Central Bank has implemented an unprecedented purchases programme of 870 billion Euros.

In fact, with the above measures, the European Union is the only regional grouping that has come up with plans, to be finalised in the next few days, to face the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Africa has held two major summit conferences in the last few weeks through videoconference which demonstrated a political will to move ahead within a plan of action, and hopefully in cooperation with the G-20 and international economic and financial institutions, like the World Bank, the IMF and the European Investment Bank. In this regard, China could play a role but through bilateral channels or through an African Fund set up for the purpose of providing financial assistance to enable Africa to have the resources needed to fight the pandemic.

The Arab world has not moved fast enough to agree on the ways and means of containing the propagation of Covid-19, particularly in the multiple war zones of Libya, Syria and Yemen. On Saturday, 4 April, the Arab League called on warring parties in the three countries to heed the call by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, to observe a ceasefire. Although the concerned parties declared their acceptance of such a move, fighting has not stopped in the three countries. If they persist in not committing wholeheartedly to stop military operations, senior UN officials believe that the pandemic will cause deaths in the thousands in an already dire humanitarian situation, especially in Yemen and Syria.

Individually, Arab countries are working to contain the pandemic through a variety of measures, either through partial lockdowns, as in the case of Egypt, or through complete ones, like in Jordan. However, the curve of Covid-19 has not flattened across the Arab world. The Muslim Holy month of Ramadan is two weeks away, and no one is in a position to say whether in this brief period of time Arab countries will succeed in taming the spread of the pandemic. To prove the unprecedented gravity of the threat, the Saudi government could prohibit the Muslim pilgrimage this summer. That would be an extreme measure that the Muslim world has not seen for many centuries. 

April 2020 will be highly critical in stemming the ascending curve of coronavirus worldwide. While the world is in a better position today than one month ago to grapple with the virus and its aftermath, the Arab world is lagging behind, and I am afraid the situation could get out of control if the UN ceasefire call is not fully heeded in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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