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A Realistic View of COVID-19 Response Policy Implications in the MENA Region

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Al Shoubaki and Aziza Zemrani
May 23, 2021

On January 26, 2021 ASPA hosted a webinar in partnership with its Section on Effective and Sound Administration in the Middle East (SESAME) looking at COVID-19 responses in the MENA region. This article continues that discussion. ASPA members can find an archived recording of the webinar online at www.aspanet.org/webinararchives

COVID-19 has hit the world hard since the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Countries continue to fight its spread; however, responses and interventions vary depending on administrative capacities and political and social contexts. Countries have reacted with different interventions at different times, resulting in chaotic policy, varying degrees of health vulnerability and economic ramifications. The exponential increase in the number of registered cases and deaths shows the degree of pressure on the administration of healthcare systems all over the world. Indeed, responses to the virus have been aggravated in developing and fragile countries that lack political stability, have poor economic conditions and vulnerable healthcare systems. One only needs to look to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states to see the complexity of managing COVID-19 on display. At a minimum, it imposes extra burdens on governments and international organizations that provide sufficient regional support to ensure better implementation of good governance principles, as well as progress toward sustainable development programs.

An analysis of the MENA states explains the potential threats of COVID-19. Given that MENA states suffer from political turbulence, various countries are in conflict situations and are indexed as fragile states (e.g., Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Lebanon). Further, MENA states encompass a large share of persons at additional risk of contracting COVID-19, including more than 2.5 million refugees and 11 million internally displaced persons (according to the United Nations Refugee Agency records in 2019).

Further, concurrent events have transpired during the MENA states’ responses to the pandemic, including instability and uncertainty of conflict in Syria, political chaos in Iraq, poor economic conditions, resource curse, mounting public debt, spread of corruption and deterioration of the healthcare system as the virus has surged. In Lebanon, which is undergoing an economic and political crisis, the sudden explosion of the Beirut port added extra pressure to deal with multiple crises.

Jordan declared a state of emergency after registering 69 confirmed COVID-19 cases and its government took strict measures to deal with the virus, including a comprehensive lockdown, regional isolation, a 14-day quarantine, a mask wearing mandate and prevention of social gatherings. Such measures were intended to protect lives and reduce the potential burden on its healthcare systems. Yet, Jordan eased its measures when economic pressure increased and promptly experienced a spike in its case load. The government was forced to establish field hospitals, as it lacked formal hospital capacity. Sadly, it experienced a tragedy similar to Egypt when a lack of oxygen supply caused the deaths of 9 people in its ICU wards. That tragedy triggered a deep conversation about the current capacity of its healthcare system, mismanagement and negligence in public sector administration.

The Egyptian government imposed tough measures at the beginning of the pandemic—a partial lockdown, compulsory quarantine periods and others—but when the negative economic impact sunk in, the government eased up its restrictions. The pandemic hit the Egyptian economy really hard, with unemployment and poverty rates increasing and growth and foreign reserves decreasing. As a result, through external loans and debts, the government allocated an emergency response package worth $6.3B (1.7% of GDP) to spend more on healthcare, scale up social protection programs and provide financial relief for individuals and businesses. It also focused on spreading misinformation, reporting false numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, to the point where healthcare professionals who questioned the forged “official” reported numbers were arrested.

Morocco’s response was unique: it quickly capitalized on lessons from its neighbors and other countries and took the most proven measures to block the spread of the virus within its borders with a large public information campaign in Arabic and Berber. It announced a lockdown to prevent its spread; boosted its industrial capacity to produce masks, hydroalcoholic gel, artificial respirators, and related medicine; and developed a socio-economic stimulus plan of $13,387,188 and a generalization of social coverage on the menu of the 2021 finance bill. In addition to immediately closing its borders and educational and training establishments, it mobilized its hospital and health structures to accept as many cases as possible and established the state emergency health emergency to ensure compliance with the rules.

In summary, the fear of COVID-19 in the MENA states exacerbated the economic and humanitarian situations there and led to questions about the states’ national capacities to address health human rights in light of their fragility and vulnerability. The response to this pandemic requires a rational partnership with global organizations to ensure better access to healthcare services in MENA states. National governments need to ensure equal access to the vaccine; it is the only exit from this crisis. Nevertheless, the story now becomes more complicated, especially after the competition among states to obtain the vaccine, which has left some states behind and exposed to additional harm that will prolong the crisis.

This column was authored by panelists from the webinar, “COVID-19 and Policy Implications for Selected Middle East and North Africa”. Contact Aziza Zemrani, professor, University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, with any questions. She can be reached at [email protected]


Authors:

Dr. Waed AlShoubaki, Assistant Professor, University of Jordan. [email protected]

Dr. Aziza Zemrani, Professor, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. [email protected]

Other contributors:

Dr. Ahmed Fayed is an Assistant Professor of Management and Public Policy at Nile University (NU). Email: [email protected]

Dr. Mohammd Makkaoui is a professor at Ecole Nationale de Commerce et de Gestion Tangier, Morocco. Email: [email protected]

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