COVID-19: Developments in West Asia
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF

The West Asian region is presently one of the worst affected regions hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The UAE was the first state in the region to report a positive case. Iran subsequently, emerged as a major hotspot for the transmission of the virus in the region. Turkey has also reported substantial number of cases in 20 days considering that the first positive case was recorded on 11 March. The variations in timings in terms of precautionary, screening and restrictive measures have been critical to determine the scale of the pandemic among different states in the region. The failure to contain the transmission of the virus is a reflection on government inaction, lack of preparedness, poor economic health and the state of health infrastructure.

Several key aspects have emerged from the experiences of West Asian states with the COVID-19 pandemic. After the outbreak in the region, the governments resorted to flight bans. The poor screening process prior to suspensions was a crucial factor for the initial transmission of the virus in the region. Flight ban was followed by restrictive measures such as closing down of schools and offices, ban of public gathering, social distancing, confinement, lockdown, penalties etc. The confinement measures in few states have opened opportunities for remote working and distance education by legalising Skype, Zoom etc. At the same time, the pandemic has also increased instances of misinformation leading to fatalities.

The governments in most states are aware of the risks involved in religious gatherings. Therefore, mosques and other places of worship were effectively closed by mid-March. Religious leaders in several states have delivered sermons to create public awareness about the pandemic. However, there are also instances of clerics indulging in misinformation and hate mongering.

The West Asian states are cautious of the economic downturn due to the ongoing crisis. Several states have introduced financial measures to stabilise the economy. Few states are however undergoing economic crunch and are relying on loans and humanitarian aid to cater with the crisis. Moreover, access to humanitarian aid in light of COVID-19 has become a powerful political tool for the United States (US) to coerce regimes such as Iran and groups such as Houthis. Several states have also engaged in political blame game accusing each other of spreading the virus.

The region is host to millions of migrant workers that live in squalid conditions with poor sanitation and the safety and the welfare of these workers are extremely pertinent. The present crisis also witnessed few acts of amnesty after several states released prisoners including political activists to curb the spread of the virus in prisons. Interestingly, several militant groups have expressed concerns about the pandemic and asked its fighters to take precautions.

India has coordinated its efforts with the West Asian states to tackle the crisis. The Indian government has been highly effective in evacuating and screening Indians returning from the region.

Lastly, the present crisis has raised debates on whether the right to privacy violations and extra-constitutional powers are justified to contain the pandemic.

Bahrain

The first case in Bahrain was recorded on 21 February 2020 and the first death occurred on 16 March. The air routes with Dubai and Sharjah were suspended on 25 February and international travel was eventually blocked on 16 March.

The government on 18 March announced US$ 11.3 billion stimulus package to support private sector employees and pay utility expanses for individuals and business for three months. The loan facilities of the Central Bank of Bahrain have been extended to US$ 9.8 billion to allow deferment of debt instalments and extension of extra credit. The Chairperson of the Supreme Council of Health, Lieutenant-General Dr Shaikh Mohamed Abdullah Al Khalifa on 24 March announced that it is one of the first states to successfully administer hydroxychloroquine to cure the symptoms of COVID-19 patients. The government has set up the quarantine centre in a barren island equipped with beds and other facilities. Moreover, National Task Force has been erected to train health professionals and advance research.

The government on 17 March released 1486 prisoners including 300 political prisoners on humanitarian grounds in light of the pandemic. Human Rights Watch has commended the positive steps but pointed these measures as insufficient.

Bahrain engaged in diplomatic tussle with Iran during this period. Bahraini Interior Minister General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa criticised Iran for allowing the spread of the virus in the region claiming it as an act of biological aggression. Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Amir Abdollahian retorted by suggesting that Bahrain is ruled by the US through its fifth fleet. Abdollahian claimed the US as a major source of biological warfare.

Iran

The first case in Iran appeared on 19 February 2020 after a Qom based businessman who returned from Wuhan was tested positive. Iran is the most affected state in the region with 44,605 confirmed cases and 2,898 deaths. On 16 March, Iran’s judiciary minister Gholamhossein Esmaili announced the release of 85,000 prisoners to avoid the risk of transmission in prisons.

Iran witnessed a high number of positive cases among the political and religious elite in the initial period. There were multiple reports of complicity of Iranian officials in cover ups to hide the true scale of the crisis. The scale of the crisis was intentionally downplayed prior to 21 February parliamentary election. The government also failed to curb misinformation on social media. In late March, around 300 people died after consuming methanol as a preventive remedy against COVID-19.

The government was slow to react and commercial flights with China were officially suspended on 31 January. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo however, cited that 55 flights ran between Iran and China in February. China is a crucial trade partner for Iran and the Islamic Republic was unwilling to disrupt the growing economic engagement especially in light of the US sanctions. China has sent medical missions, testing equipment, ventilators to Iran to replenish the shortage. The delivery of traditional Chinese medicine for the supposed prevention of critical cases has been a crucial aspect of China's support mission during the pandemic.

The Iran-US tensions have permeated in the COVID-19 crisis. Several Iranian clerics have indulged in conspiracy theory by claiming the virus as an American-Israeli biological weapon. Western critics have pointed that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC) is indulging in systematic propaganda to improve its image, divert the attention over the government's failure and further vilify the US and Israel. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also dabbled in conspiracy theory by suggesting that the virus was designed by the US especially for the Iranian genetic makeup.

Iran has also requested the US to relax sanctions on humanitarian grounds to ease the purchase of masks and other medical equipment. Iran at the same time has rejected proposal to host an American team to cope with the pandemic. Iran has been highly sceptical of western help during the current crisis. The government has also rejected help from France based ‘Doctors without Borders’ over suspicions of spying. The US at the same time has refused to relax sanctions and in fact introduced new sanctions on five firms and several Iranian individuals. It would further aggravate the crisis causing supply shortages and fatalities.

India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation suspended operations of Iranian flights in India on 27 February. The Indian government in early March announced that it has received 108 samples from Iran which were tested in the AIIMS laboratory. India has also sent six scientists from Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to set up labs in Iran and contribute to studying the virus. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stated that there are around 2400 Indians including 1100 pilgrims, 1000 fishermen and 300 students in Iran. The Indian government by mid March had evacuated around 590 citizens. There are large numbers of Indian Shiite pilgrims mostly from Ladakh who are stranded after flights to Iran were suspended in late February. In March, three Indians have died in Iran. The Supreme Court on 28 March has sought the government's response about their possible evacuation. The government has assured about the upkeep of the Indian citizens stranded in Iran.

Iraq

Iraq reported the first positive case on 24 February 2020 after an Iranian student was tested in Najaf. Iraq had suspended the entry of Iranians on 20 February. On 9 March, five border checkpoints and overland trade with Iran were also closed. Iranian export routes with Iraqi Kurdistan however, remained open. The government’s instructions to impose ban of public gathering has dampened the anti-government protests continuing since October 2019 in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In order to tackle the pandemic, centralised crisis unit has been set up in Baghdad on 7 March connected to local units in all governorates comprising of representatives from ministry of health, environment, immigration, interior, higher education etc.

Iraq witnessed protests since late 2019 demanding political reforms leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi on 30 November 2019. Poor health service was one of the core subjects during the protests. World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned about a major health crisis emerging in the war-torn state. It has requested the government to take adequate measures and urged international community to offer support. WHO has sent a high-level technical mission to assess Iraq’s preparedness to tackle the pandemic. The delegation held series of meetings with health officials to identify the disease detection dynamics among at-risk populations and offered guidance on strengthening response and control measures. China has also sent diagnostic kits, medical supplies and traditional Chinese medicine as well as a medical team to Baghdad to assist in testing, treatment and follow-up of patients on 8 March. Oil production in Iraq has suffered a setback after Malaysian firm Petronas on 17 March evacuated its employees from Gharraf southern oilfield that produces 95,000 barrels per day (bpd).

Israel

The first case in Israel was recorded on 21 February 2020 after one of the 11 Israelis returning from the Diamond Princess Cruise ship was found positive. Israel along with the US, China, Russia, India and the European Union states has been at the forefront of research to develop vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

The Israeli government imposed non-essential travel ban from China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Japan etc on 16 February. On 10 March, travel ban was extended to all international and domestic flights. During the third national election held on 2 March, 5630 quarantined Israelis have been allowed to vote in designated voting stations.

In the post-election context, the two biggest parties and rivals i.e. Likud and Kahol Lavan in the background of the pandemic are moving towards reconciliation and both parties are likely to form the next national unity government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial which was due to convene on 17 March has been postponed to 24 May by the court which has been criticised by civil rights groups. Human rights and civil society groups as well as Israeli Arabs have raised concerns over violations of civil liberties and privacy after the government decided to allow Shin Bet to use counter-terrorism measures such as mobile phone surveillance to track the movement of suspected or quarantined Israelis. The government has assured that the surveillance measures are focussed only on controlling the pandemic and are temporary in nature.

The pandemic has cost heavy losses to Israel's national carrier, El Al. In early March, the airline company announced that it would lay off 1000 out of its 6300 employees. On 11 March it was reported that 80 percent of its employees have been granted unpaid leave. The government has however promised support.

On 22 March, the Waqf Board announced the closing the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock compound to prevent congregation in the light of the pandemic. The Church of Holy Sepulchre was closed for worshippers on 25 March. Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef issued religious edicts to obey the health ministry's guidelines and requested people to avoid visiting the western wall. Earlier on 16 February, religious Jews along with few Chinese nationals organised a mass prayer at the Western Wall for the well being of the Chinese people.

The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov has appreciated the efforts of Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to coordinate their efforts to mitigate the pandemic. The UN has noted that Israel has allowed the entry of health workers and critical supplies such as swabs, laboratory equipment and personal protective equipment to Gaza. Israel's efforts towards containing the spread of the pandemic in the Palestinian territories are driven primarily by security concerns.

India upon the request of the Israeli embassy has evacuated 314 Israelis from India in an Air India flight on 26 March.

Jordan

The first case in Jordan was recorded on 2 March 2020 and the first death occurred on 28 March. On 14 March, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz announced ban on all forms of public gatherings and universities, schools and religious places were closed with immediate effect. On 17 March, travel ban was imposed on all international air and land travel. Jordan's third largest city, Irbid has witnessed the largest surge in the number of positive cases.

On 16 March, the government deployment armed forces in the cities and in the highways to enforce confinement. King Abdullah II on 17 March issued a royal decree approving the cabinet’s decision to impose the 1992 Defence Law. The aforementioned law has granted additional powers to the Prime Minister that could curtail basic rights to enforce strict measures for containing the pandemic. Prime Minister Razzaz has assured that the additional powers would not impinge upon the citizen's political rights, freedom of expression and private property.

The ongoing crisis has disrupted Jordan’s fragile economy and tourism has suffered due to the lockdown and suspension of air and land transport. Tourism sector contributed 19 percent to Jordan’s GDP in 2019. The government has introduced series of economic initiatives to alleviate Jordanians from the financial burden of the pandemic. In accordance with the Defence Law, the Social Security Corporation has lowered the social security subscription ratio for institutions and employees from 21.75% to 5.25% in order to support both employers and employees. The government has reportedly announced aid package worth US$ 22 million to help elderly and low-income groups.

The Central Bank of Jordan reduced the main policy rate by 100 basis points to 2.5%. It has also lowered the cash reserve requirement for banks to release an additional liquidity of around US$ 775 million. The Central of Jordan has requested banks to reschedule loans and provide appropriate grace periods with no additional charge to their clients.

Jordan's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reportedly authorised doctors to administer hydroxychloroquine along with an antiviral medicine to treat advance stage patients.

Kuwait

The first case in Kuwait was reported on 24 February 2020. It has not recorded any fatality until the end of March. The government suspended all international flights on 13 March. Kuwait undertook necessary measures such as placing bans on public gatherings and imposing a penalty of US$ 32,267 for violating the curfew. The Civil Défense Committee has issued identity cards for people working in essential services.

Cargo planes however have been allowed access to maintain steady supply of food and other committees. Kuwait similar to other Gulf States is highly reliant on imports for agricultural commodities and medicines and medical equipment. The continued disruption of trade links could affect its essential supplies if the present crisis continues. The plight of migrant workers is a crucial subject in Kuwait during the ongoing crisis. The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) met with the leaders of migrant worker associations to discuss on issues such as expired residency, late salaries and living arrangements. KTUF assured the migrant groups that it would work closely with the Public Authority for Manpower to solve these pressing issues.

Ministry of External Affairs on 18 March reported that one Indian national has been evacuated from Kuwait. India cancelled flights to the Gulf state on 12 March.

Lebanon

The first case in Lebanon appeared on 21 February 2020 after a Lebanese woman who returned from Iran was tested positive. The first casualty occurred on 10 March. Lebanon suspended flights from 11 states on 11 March and all international air travel was closed on 19 March.

The government has faced difficulties in procuring medical supplies and upgrading the health sector due to the economic crisis. Presently, Lebanon’s public debt is at US$ 89.5 billion and the dollar shortage has reduced the import capability of essential items such as masks, gloves, and other protective gear, as well as ventilators and spare parts. The government has failed to reimburse hospitals and replenish the National Social Security Fund and military health fund. It has slowed down the purchase of medical supplies and training and employment of additional stuff. Economists fear further economic breakdown after the crisis.

The state has been facing anti-government protests since October 2019 leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Harari. Health experts fear that community level transmission has already commenced due to ill preparedness, slow public awareness measures, poor health care measures etc.

Presently, there are around 910,256 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon living in highly congested areas with limited access to basic necessities including health care. The spread of the pandemic in these impoverished areas could further aggravate the humanitarian situation.

Oman

The first two cases were reported on 24 February 2020 after two Omani women returning from Oman were tested positive. The first casualty occurred on 31 March. Oman suspended international air travel on 29 March. Oman Air had earlier suspended its operations in India on 22 March.

The government has introduced budgetary measures such as ensuring ministries and civil, military and security units to apply 5 percent cuts in their budgets; revising subsidy and expenditure provisions of public sector firms and ensuring stable food supplies. Al Riffd Fund is offering loans to small and medium business enterprises to cope with the crisis. Notably, in order to facilitate a more viable work culture during the confinement period, the telecommunication ministry has legalised Skype, Zoom and Google Meet. The crisis has opened new channels of communication which were previously inaccessible in Oman.

Palestine

The first case in the West Bank was recorded in Bethlehem after seven Palestinians were tested positive on 5 March 2020. The first case in Gaza was reported after two Palestinians were tested positive who returned from Pakistan through Egypt. Around 13,000 people that came in contact with the two Palestinians at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt have also been quarantined. The number of cases in both West Bank and Gaza surged in the succeeding days.

In Gaza, there are 100 Intensive Care Unit beds according to the General Director of Primary Care, Medhat Abbas. Gaza's heath infrastructure has been weak prior to the pandemic. The people in Gaza fear that a full-scale epidemic would have devastating consequences for the society and its already weak economy. Israel has faced criticism for choking the supply of essential supplies including medicines and equipment. Israel has reportedly sent 200 testing kits to Gaza. Gaza due to the tight restrictions may have witnessed delay in the spread of the virus; however, the intensity of the spread could grow exponentially in the numerous refugee camps and overcrowded towns. Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have cancelled the mass rallies of the second anniversary of the 'Great March of Return'. The groups have requested the people to raise Palestinian flags at their homes.

In the West Bank, Bethlehem city came under lockdown and the Church of Nativity was closed on 7 March after 22 new cases emerged. The spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority (PA) Ibrahim Melhem announced the first death on 25 March. Melhem appealed that Palestinians should follow China's 'pioneering experience' in tackling and combating the disease. The Palestinian authorities in succeeding days extended the lockdown to other Palestinian towns.

Presently, restrictions have been placed on Palestinian workers travelling to Israel that risk transmitting the virus to West Bank. The PA has reportedly coordinated with Israeli authorities to enforce restrictive measures on the movement of these workers. PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on 14 March demanded Israel to release Palestinian prisoners especially those who are sick, elderly or suffering from fatal diseases. PA also urged Hamas to release prisoners in Gaza. Critics in West Bank have pointed to the PA’s reluctance to release prisoners held in its custody.

Due to the ongoing crisis, the PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara met with Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to request around US$ 138 million. Israel in February 2019 halted the transfer of the amount and accused PA of financially supporting families of Palestinian militants killed by Israeli forces or imprisoned in Israel. Subsequently, after the meeting of both finance ministers, Israel announced its decision to dispense US$ 33 million to PA to upgrade its health infrastructure to counter the COVID-19 threat. In terms of foreign aid, Kuwait has provided US$ 5.5million to the PA. Qatar has also donated US$10m to the Palestinian government to support its containment efforts. The Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on 22 March has ordered transferring US$ 150 million to Gaza over the period of six months.

Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) has accused Israel of utilising the pandemic to further oppress the Palestinians and expand settlement plans. The COVID-19 related restrictions have encouraged Jewish settlers to illegally expropriate Palestinian lands and destroy their agricultural produce. There have also been reports of Israeli forces disrupting emergency health camps in different parts of West Bank.

Qatar

The first case was recorded on 29 February 2020 after a Qatari national returning from Iran was tested positive. The first death was reported on 28 March. Qatar announced suspension of all incoming international flights on 16 March. The authorities had suspended flights from India earlier on 9 March.

The government has introduced US$ 23 billion including US$ 2.75 billion to pump the stock market and support the private sector. Accordingly, Banks have been requested to temporarily extend loan instalments up to six months for private firms and custom duties on food items and medicines have been lifted for six months. Moreover, sectors such as tourism, small and medium-sized businesses, and logistics are also likely to benefit from the exemptions.
The industrial area outside Doha inhabited by large number of migrant workers live has been hotspot for COVID-19 transmission. The poor health facilities for expatriate labourers working in Qatar have been key area of concern for human rights groups. The labour accommodation camps are generally overcrowded and the state of sanitation, water facilities etc are poor. Qatar has a poor record of ill-treatment of migrant workers. Labour reforms have however been undertaken in the past years to improve their conditions. The government has assured that it would ensure the medical needs and welfare of all its residents.

Saudi Arabia

The first case in Saudi Arabia was recorded on 2 March 2020 after a Saudi national who travelled from Iran via Bahrain was identified. Due to the growing number of positive cases in the initial period among people arriving from Bahrain through the King Fahed Causeway, the route was closed except for commercial traffic. The Saudi government earlier on 28 February suspended entry of citizens from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and also suspended entry of pilgrims from foreign countries to Mecca and Medina. Further precautions were taken to sterilize the two holy mosques leading to temporary closure and eventually it was closed for general prayers on 20 March. Saudi Arabia suspended international travel on 15 March.

The Saudi government on 20 March announced a US$ 32 billion stimulus package to support small and medium enterprises, banking sector, financial institutions etc. It has reportedly prepared 25 hospitals with 80,000 beds, 8000 ICU beds and 2,200 beds for isolation of suspected and quarantined cases. Saudi Arabia has also donated US$ 10 million to the WHO to support the national response initiatives of all the states in the region.

The government has introduced confinement measures and residents in each region have been prohibited entry to other regions. The authorities imposed penalty of US$ 2662 for violating the curfew. Moreover, fine of US$ 133,000 would be imposed on those who do not reveal their travel history or health information after entering the state. Saudi authorities due to pressure from human rights groups have released hundreds of prisoners from Al-Shumaisi Prison in the last week of March to lower the risk of the pandemic. Around 250 immigration offenders were also released on 26 March.

Earlier on 2 February, 10 Saudi nationals were evacuated from Wuhan, China. With regard to India, travel between both countries was suspended on 12 March. On 17 March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held telephonic conversation with the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman in order to coordinate efforts to cope with the global crisis. Both leaders shared their ideas and objectives for the G20 summit which will be hosted in Riyadh in November 2020. Saudi Arabia, the current chair of the G20 summit organised an extraordinary virtual summit on 26 March to discuss policies for greater coordination, preserving financial stability, reviving growth and reducing the humanitarian impact.

Syria

Syria reported its first case of COVID-19 on 23 March 2020 which has increased to 10 including two deaths on 31 March. President Bashar Al Assad ordered prisoner amnesty to reduce the congestion in jails. Notably, it is speculated that Iranian militias and Shiite pilgrims have already transmitted the virus within Syria and fighters are continuing to enter through the al-Bukamar border crossing with Iraq, which has reported positive cases. There are multiple reports of complaints from people experiencing the symptoms similar to COVID-19.

The ongoing civil war has destroyed large part of the state’s economy and infrastructure including health care. The WHO has warned that health care system would be unable to respond to the growing pandemic. The testing and responding capacities are limited to major cities. There are reportedly no testing kits in Kurdish controlled territories. There are 150 ventilators to treat patients according to Kurdish authorities.

The situation of civilians is already grim in rebel held areas of Idlib in need of food and shelter. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 6.6 million internally displaced persons within Syria and 5.6 million Syrians seeking asylum in other states. Turkey presently hosts 64 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees followed by Lebanon at 16.4 percent, Jordan at 11.8 percent, Iraq at 4.5 percent and Egypt at 2.3 percent. These communities that sustain on limited resources are in highly vulnerable position in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Turkey

The first case in Turkey was recorded on 11 March 2020 and the first death occurred on 17 March. Turkey suspended flights from China on 3 February and border gates with Iran, Iraq and Georgia were closed on 27 February. On 29 February, the air routes with Italy were also closed.

The Turkish government earlier in January 2020 launched an operation centre assisted by a scientific committee. It prepared a set of guidelines to dispense correct information about the disease. Digital Transformation Office was also opened to offer latest information about the pandemic. On 24 March, the authorities announced that the new Chinese novel coronavirus drug has been distributed in 40 cities through air ambulances. The Health Ministry also assured that the Vaccine Institute is working towards developing a vaccine. The government appointed 32,000 new health personnel and announced that it would mass produce respiratory devices domestically.

In terms of economic initiatives, the government introduced a US$ 15.3 billion stimulus package called Economic Stability Shield Program. Accordingly, tax and social insurance payments for all companies in sectors such as iron and steel, textile, retail, logistics and transportation, food and beverages, entertainment, hotels etc. have been postponed. The state credit guarantee fund has been doubled to protect private banks and all financial institutions have been requested to ease the provisions for new loans. Export companies, small and medium enterprise, poor families and elderly people are also likely to benefit from the package. The government also offered support to Turkish Airlines and eased accommodation tax of hotels, guesthouses etc to rescue the tourism sector. The tourism sector contributes 12 percent to the state's economy. Notably, Turkey remained open for tourists until mid March escalating the scope of transmission. Moreover, international air travel was suspended only on 28 March.

The government has faced criticism domestically and the Turkish Medical Association (TMA) requested the government to maintain transparency about the spread of the virus. Experts have speculated that the real numbers of positive cases are much higher. The correct figures are unclear due to low screening and testing procedures. There have been reports of slow response by the government to curb misinformation such as Turkish people being naturally immune to the virus due to their genetic makeup, seasonal nature of the virus etc.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during this period has criticised the EU states for failing to contain the spread of COVID-19 in other parts of the world. Turkey engaged in a minor diplomatic tussle with Saudi Arabia after Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu criticised the Saudi government for failing to inform about the risks posed by pilgrims visiting the holy cities in Mecca and Medina. The Turkish authorities quarantined around 10,000 pilgrims after the first case was reported. Therefore, there is fear of positive cases entering the state in large numbers from Saudi Arabia before the quarantine procedures were adopted.

In a diplomatic boost, Turkey was appreciated for rescuing six Azerbaijanis, three Georgians and one Albanian along with 32 Turkish nationals from Wuhan on 1 February. Turkey on 17 March has sent medical supplies including 1,000 coronavirus test kits, 4,175 protective medical clothing, 2,004 protective goggles, 4,000 N95 face masks and 78,000 three-layer masks to Iran.

UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the first state in the region to record a positive case after a Chinese family from Wuhan were identified with the symptoms on 29 January 2020. On 4 March, the UAE evacuated 215 Arab nationals from Wuhan and quarantined them at the newly built Emirates Humanitarian city. The number of cases started growing in succeeding days. The air routes however remained open and the government suspended air travel on 23 March.

The government has presently adopted tough measures to enforce isolation/quarntine. On 26 March, the Interior Ministry referred 64 people to prosecution for violating quarantine instructions. The government has categorised the list of essential services to allow free movement of employees in sectors such as banking and financial services; civil aviation; construction; education; energy; government media; health and pharmacies; law enforcement and armed forces; postal service, shipping and logistics; telecommunications.

The government has taken several economic measures to sustain the economic health of the state. The Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairperson of the Executive Council of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum announced stimulus package worth US$ 409 million focussing on retail, trade, tourism and energy sectors. On 14 March, the UAE Central Bank announced $27 billion in credit and capital. Private firms and individuals have been offered temporary exemption from principal payments and interest on existing loans by the Central Bank. The UAE cabinet on 23 March approved an additional US$ 4.35 billion stimulus package. These measures are directed towards supporting the start-ups and small and medium enterprises. Funds have also been allocated for subsidising water and electricity for citizens and commercial and industrial activities.

The UAE armed forces have also been involved to tackle the pandemic. The military conducted two day training exercise in Jebel Ali and Shamkha areas on 28 and 29 March. The exercise, 'Ta'awon Al Haq 12' is a joint effort of the UAE Armed Forces, Ministry of Health and Prevention, Ministry of Interior and the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) to assess the coordination and integration in combating the crisis. The exercise involved the movement of helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, ambulances, and vehicles of police and civil defence units. The exercise also acted a political message to assure residents about the government's preparedness. The Telecommunication Regulation Authority in the UAE following the Oman example has legalised Skype, Zoom, Blackboard, Microsoft Teams to promote remote working and distance learning.

There are 3.31 million Indians in the UAE according to the International Migrant Stock 2019. A large section of Indians comprises of migrant workers live in overcrowded apartments with poor sanitation limited food and medical supplies. These migrants have expressed their anxiety about the impact of confinement on their income options, contract extensions, deportation etc. The Indian government has evacuated 12 Indians from the UAE in light of the pandemic.

Yemen

Yemen is currently divided between the Houthi controlled northern Yemen based in Sanaa and the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi based in Aden. There are no reported cases in Yemen. On 14 March, both rival governments have suspended air travel and imposed restrictions on road transport.

The spread of virus could have devastating effect due to lack of basic health care facilities destroyed during the civil war. The administrations in both north and south Yemen are dependent on humanitarian aid from international organisations and foreign actors. Saudi Arabia has committed US$ 10 million to WHO Yemen to support its Readiness and Response Plan. WHO with the help of Saudi Arabia has also distributed laboratory screening tests, personal protective items for health workers, trauma medication and other medical supplies in both Aden and Sanaa on 23 March. These aid efforts are however facing series of challenges.

The UAE backed Security Belt forces on 25 March blocked the supply of medical equipment including 81 ambulances, 15 mobile clinics and 65 artificial respirators to Houthi controlled territories. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has also reduced aid in northern Yemen citing interference by the Houthi administration. On 23 March, the World Bank and the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) provided US$ 26.7 million to the internationally recognised government in Aden to assist in preparing for the pandemic. However, Houthi controlled territories are not likely to receive the share to upgrade the health infrastructure. Moreover, health workers are unable to reach the critical sites due to suspension of air travel including UN and chartered medical flights.

References

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image/ Map by Elora Chakraborty

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