In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. The current coronavirus epidemic, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has so far infected around 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, most of them in China. Can we expect to see this epidemic become a pandemic?
Fears are now gripping the Middle East that this might well be the case. The region is in flux, with the constant circulation of pilgrims and merchants, traders and workers who might carry the virus. Ongoing wars, occupation and unrest have shattered the health systems of several countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as occupied Palestine. Hence, serious consideration should be given to a united approach to tackling the virus, the first case of which appeared in the Middle East on 29 January in the UAE.
BREAKING: UAE reports first case of new coronavirus https://t.co/XQhLD5wMuG
— BNO Newsroom (@BNODesk) January 29, 2020
The government in the Emirates says that it is ready for a worst case scenario as the coronavirus spreads. Given that the most populous city in the UAE, Dubai, is due to host the Expo 2020 world fair in October for six months, the authorities want to assure people about their contingency plans to tackle the epidemic. An official from the UAE National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority said that it has enough facilities to quarantine patients and will be carrying out surveillance on people entering the country.
Furthermore, the UAE government has suspended all flights to mainland China, except Beijing, and Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways has announced the suspension of flights to Hong Kong until 28 March, at least. As a major international air transit hub, airports in the UAE have started the thermal screening of passengers on direct flights from China. The crisis is expected hit tourism badly.
If the coronavirus is anything like the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, it could wipe off $29 billion in global airline revenue this year, resulting in an industry contraction, the International Air Transport Association said on Thursday. Most of the losses would be concentrated among airlines in the Asia-Pacific region, it added.
In the Gulf, three states recorded their first coronavirus cases this week, with all of those affected coming from Iran, which on Wednesday reported a total of 19 virus-related deaths, the most outside China, and 139 people ill. Iran seems to be the regional centre of the epidemic and is believed to have been the source of the first cases reported in neighbouring Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman. Iran`s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, denied on Monday that the government in Tehran is covering up the scale of the outbreak. Harirchi himself has confirmed that he has been tested for the virus and the result was positive.
This is #Iran's deputy health minister, who we now know has #coronavirus, giving an interview about #COVID19 on state TV last night. The anchor says to him "you are coughing" he says "maybe I should cover my mouth like this" pic.twitter.com/2A7xRrCkTv
— Ali Arouzi (@aliarouzi) February 25, 2020
However, in the Iranian holy city of Qom, a day after the President of the city's University of Medical Sciences Mohammad Reza Qadir described the coronavirus outbreak there as critical in a live television programme, and revealed that the decision to censor the statistics and information about the outbreak had been issued by senior government officials, state-run IRNA news agency reported that he has been quarantined. With an increasing death toll, shutting down the city is definitely on the agenda, although this is likely to be resisted by religious officials, unless they come under international pressure to do so.
According to a report on the BBC, Dr Nathalie MacDermott, an expert in infectious diseases at King's College London, has said that there are serious concerns about Iran because there is no accurate picture of how widespread the outbreak really is in the country. Yesterday, the World Health Organisation sent medical supplies and additional testing kits to Tehran and is also planning to send a technical team. Neighbouring states, meanwhile, have largely shut their borders and suspended Shia Muslim pilgrimages to Iran. Saudi Arabia has also suspended the issue of visas for Umrah pilgrimages to Makkah and Madinah.
In Lebanon, Health Minister Hamad Hassan announced last Friday that one woman returning from a pilgrimage to Qom has been tested as positive for having the coronavirus, the first case in the country. Two other suspected cases are in quarantine.
Economically, the virus is hitting an already depressed oil market. For the first time in more than a year, oil dropped below $50 per barrel as fears that energy demand would take a long-term hit from the outbreak. Now, all eyes will turn to China's March crude oil contracts with Saudi Arabia to see how much the value drops. As OPEC's largest crude producer, last summer Saudi Arabia exported around 1.8 million barrels of crude per day to China, according to the cartel's own figures.
Kuwait has joined Saudi Arabia in taking precautions to defeat the virus. According to Reuters, the Kuwaitis have banned foreign ships from leaving for or arriving from several countries.
The World Health Organisation has said that 80 per cent of those with the COVID-19 virus report only mild, flu-like symptoms, and just 2 per cent of cases have been fatal, a far smaller death rate than previous epidemics like SARS or MERS. Nevertheless, the WHO also pointed out that the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe are on a knife edge.
The history of the Middle East is replete with divisions caused by nationalism, religion and politics. Now is the time for the region to take a united approach to the coronavirus in order to stop it from spreading any further.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.