The only fact about COVID-19 is that it’s something utterly unprecedented. As we settle into a new normal of empty shelves, closed borders and full quarantines, the first fallout dynamics of the virus emerge. COVID-19 and its ramifications cannot be examined through an epidemiological lens. Even now, scholars have started viewing the disease and its spread through socioeconomic and geopolitical frames.1.Eric Schewe, “With Coronavirus, Science Confronts Geopolitics”: JSTOR Daily The wider and terrifying implications of this disease can especially be seen within the context of the Middle East, which had already seen rising tensions and conflict in the months leading up to COVID-19’s outbreak.
In the Levant, a region already wracked by political instability and suffering from socioeconomic decline, COVID-19 heralds a new dynamic threatening the thin threads holding the region together. Every country in the region has announced its share of COVID-19 cases. Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and their neighbours have all been affected by the disease to some capacity. The Syrian regime has confirmed its first case on March 22, though one can assume that illnesses have been plaguing the country for some time now.2.“Syria confirms first coronavirus case”: Jerusalem Post What remains uncertain is the trajectory of the illness in these countries and the long-term consequences. The fallout could be devastating. In this article, we will assess several Levantine countries, their epidemic measures, and the potential ramifications of COVID-19.
Lebanon: Assessing the Efficacy of Government Action
As of March 22, Lebanon has reported 248 cases of the infection.3.Lebanese Ministry of Public Health: Twitter4.Mahmut Geldi, “Lebanon’s coronavirus cases rise to 120”: Anadolu Agency It was revealed that the first case emerged in February 28 from a woman who had travelled to Iran. As the disease progressed, Lebanese officials ramped up emergency measures and urged civilians to take preventative measures. The Minister of Education, Tarek al-Majzoub, announced that Lebanon would suspend all schools from February 29 to March 8.5.“Lebanon closes schools until March 8 to curb coronavirus spread”: Reuters As cases increased, the measure likewise was extended until March 14.6.“Committee extends closure of schools, universities and nurseries until March 14”: LBC Group March 11 saw the government order large scale closures of clubs, restaurants, and other centers.7.Omar Jamal, “All Restaurants in Lebanon Will Close Down to Contain Coronavirus”: The 961 On March 15, it was announced by the Lebanese cabinet that all borders, including land, sea, and international air travel, were to be closed as part of a “partial lockdown” of the country.8.Timour Azhari: Twitter Meanwhile, reports on the ground indicated that Beirut was almost silent and without large scale activity.
International organisations and other strategic partners have also played a large role in dealing with the disease’s spread. The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) has created training sessions and seminars, working closely with Lebanese government bodies and civil society organisations (CSOs). A March 11 training seminar saw WHO officials working with the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, Lebanese Medical Students’ International Committee, and with the Lebanese Red Cross.9.World Health Organization: Twitter Meanwhile, temperature measuring equipment from Chinese companies were donated to the Lebanese government and set up at Rafic Hariri International Airport.10.Wang Keijan: Twitter
While the number of reported COVID-19 cases remain relatively small, the disease presents a new crisis for the ageing Lebanese government to deal with. Underneath these measures, a host of other socioeconomic and political illnesses are at work. Starting in October 2019, the country faced widespread civilian protests against the incompetent and corrupt government regime. Protesters lashed against rampant inequality, declining social services, and failures in responding to emergencies. Ministers like Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt were criticised for their exorbitant lifestyles, especially when contrasted to the socioeconomic status of many Lebanese civilians.11.Hagay Hacohen, “Angry Lebanese march after Hariri gives model $16 mil.”: Jerusalem Post
For many Lebanese, society was already in decline. The country faced staggering declines in currency values, defaulting onforeign debts, and literal shortages of foreign currencies.12.“A long-feared currency crisis has begun to bite in Lebanon”: The Economist13.Vivian Yee, “Lebanon Will Default on Foreign Debt Payment Amid Deepening Economic Crisis”: New York Times Nearly a third of the country live below the international poverty line and access to health resources is incredibly limited.14.Rosette Fadel, “Third of Lebanese live in poverty, experts say”: An-Nahar While public hospitals are maintained, the vast majority of Lebanon’s healthcare apparatus (around 82% of all medical facilities) is privatised and used as tools of political incentive.15.Thomas Schellen, “A look into Lebanon’s healthcare”: Executive Magazine For many Lebanese, access to private medical institutions is prohibitively expensive, and according to Human Rights Watch, public hospitals face constant issues with underfunding.16.“Lebanon: Hospital Crisis Endangering Health”: Human Rights Watch This is especially troubling when considering rampant currency devaluation of the Lebanese pound.17.Deborah Amos and Lama al-Arian, “Amid Lebanon’s Economic Crisis, The Country’s Health Care System Is Ailing”: NPR Further issues come when assessing medical equipment. According to Suleiman Haroun, president of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, 10% of respirators were not functional and remain in disrepair.18.Sarah Abdallah, “Lebanon struggles to cope with COVID-19 amid financial crisis”: al-Monitor Although Prime Minister Hassan Diab has claimed that the Lebanese government will prioritise the lives of its civilians, the efficacy of future measures comes into question.19.Hassan Diab: Twitter
The Lebanese government has historically failed to mobilise resources effectively to combat emergencies. While the COVID-19 measures mentioned above are necessary, they are reactive rather than being proactive. In fact, Lebanese officials only started delivering online resources about the disease on March 19. 20.“Corona Virus Ministry Information”: Lebanese Government It is important to remember incidents like the October 2019 forest fires that afflicted much of the Lebanese mountainside.21.Timour Azhari, “‘It was like judgment day’: Lebanese devastated by wildfires”: al-Jazeera In the face of this crisis, Lebanese ministers delayed action and it was revealed that three Sikorsky S-70 helicopters given to the government (and funded by civilians) to fight forest fires were in disrepair from government mismanagement.22.Timour Azhari, “Lebanon wildfires: Hellish scenes in mountains south of Beirut”: al-Jazeera The Lebanese parliament instead turned to Cyprus and to its civilians for assistance.23.“Lebanon turns to neighbors as wildfires burn out of control”: Daily Sabah Volunteers mobilised to fight the flames, distribute emergency resources, and to participate in the reforesting the region while the government shared sectarian conspiracies, blaming various groups for intentionally fanning the flames.24.“Lebanon calls for help as forest fires spread”: BBC These forest fires are an illuminating reminder of the inefficacies of the Lebanese regime, and although Prime Minister Diab has focused on creating a more technocratic government, the bulk of Lebanon’s government apparatus remains in place. The extent to which the government can adequately combat COVID-19 and its resulting socioeconomic consequences remain to be seen.
Jordan: Assessing the Implications of the Tourism Industry
Jordan, on the other hand, has remained relatively silent. From the Turkish offensive into Syria to the protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom has placed a tight lip. While the country may maintain a policy of silence, this has not prevented the spread of COVID-19 and its accompanying news. As of March 22, Jordan has announced a total number of 112 cases, though a sizeable number of these originated from foreign tourists.25.“Total number of corona cases in Jordan rises to 10”: Roya News26.“Jordan announces national lockdown amid coronavirus outbreak”: Jerusalem Post However, the Jordanian response to the disease has been relatively proactive despite the small number of infections. On March 14, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz announced that the country would halt most passenger flights leaving the country, reduce the number of public gatherings, and closing schools and universities for two weeks.27.Areeb Ullah, “Coronavirus: Jordan cancels flights and bans prayers at mosques”: Middle East Eye As cases mounted, Jordanian measures became increasingly dramatic, and on March 17 Prime Minister Razzaz declared that Jordanian Armed Forces would be stationed outside of cities and enact checkpoints. 28.“Jordan announces national lockdown amid coronavirus outbreak”: Jerusalem Post
Along with many of the provisions noted above, Prime Minister Razzaz has also announced a closure of all tourist sites, including Petra. Key conferences, like the Arab Forum for Tourism Investment, have, consequently, been cancelled.29.“Jordan tourism suffers huge blow from coronavirus”: The Arab Weekly These measures, while necessary, have resulted in significant damages to Jordan’s tourism industry, a sector of incredible significance to the Jordanian economy.
While many economic sectors in Jordan lag behind, tourism is estimated to make up over 18-20% of the country’s GDP. According to the World Travel and Tourism Committee, tourism “ranked as one of the most important foreign exchange sources for the Jordan economy with USD 7,633 billion in 2017.”30.Ismaiel Abumaoud, Amal Ibrahim, Lubna Hijawi, “Estimating the Economic Impact of Tourism in the North of Jordan through the I-O Approach”: European Research Studies Journal Furthermore, in a country with an unemployment rate of over 19.2%, the tourism industry remains a key pillar of employment and job creation.31.“Jordan Overview”: World Bank 32.“Jordan’s Tourism Sector Analysis and Strategy for Sectorial Improvement”: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit In 2018, it was reported that over 88,000 people were employed in the tourism sector, and youth employment has especially relied on tourism.33.“Tourism revenues surpass $5-billion mark in 2018”: Jordan Times The pivotal nature of this sector has meant a high level of government focus, with national strategy plans aiming for huge improvements to tourism output by 2028. 34.Ismaiel Abumaoud, Amal Ibrahim, Lubna Hijawi, “Estimating the Economic Impact of Tourism in the North of Jordan through the I-O Approach”: European Research Studies Journal The emergence of COVID-19 represents a huge dash to these hopes and the immediate impact of the disease can already be felt.
In a country with a poverty rate of around 15%, where over a million individuals are considered poor, and with constantly increasing deficits and debts, the socioeconomic consequences of COVID-19 are vast.35.“Jordan agrees $1.3bn IMF programme – Petra”: al-Jazeera36.“Poverty and Equity Portal”: World Bank37.“Government survey: Extreme poverty in Jordan at 15.7%”: Middle East Monitor While the Arab Spring may have reduced the number of tourists visiting the country, COVID-19 represents an immediate stop to this flow and it is uncertain the extent these measures will go on for. Indeed, the pandemic’s ongoing nature only means that further restrictions will likely remain and that this prised sector will face substantial decline in the months, and possibly years, to come.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories: Assessing Political Crises
Israel has maintained a strong face against the disease despite internal political shakiness. Currently, the country has over 945 cases after the disease appeared on Israeli shores on February 21.38.“Israel confirms first coronavirus case as cruise ship returnee diagnosed”: Times of Israel39.“Israelis not allowed to leave their homes unless ‘absolutely necessary’”: Jerusalem Post Shortly after, unconfirmed statements by unidentified officials indicated that a vaccine to the virus was “days away,” though such remarks have been disproven by the Israeli Defence Ministry.40.Judah Gross, “Defense Ministry denies ‘breakthrough’ on vaccine for COVID-19”: Times of Israel However, statements by the Health Ministry have indicated that, at the least, Israel is taking action against the disease and reportedly more than 50 scientists in the country are actively working on a vaccine. Other measures taken by the Israeli government have included a two week quarantine process for those returning to Israel from abroad.41.Benjamin Netanyahu: Twitter On March 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a month-long closure of schools and universities, and limits were placed on public gatherings of over 100 people.42.“Israel shutters schools, universities as coronavirus patients top 100”: Jerusalem Post
March 14 saw the emergence of even stricter restrictions as the number of infected increased dramatically. In addition to the closing of schools and universities, day care facilities, restaurants, gyms, and pools were forced to shut down, and gatherings of more than 10 (including religious activities) individuals were banned.43.“No more daycare, restaurants, gyms or shopping malls: The new virus regulations”: Times of Israel At the same time, it was revealed that security apparatuses like Shin Bet would utilise tracking technologies to monitor infected individuals and to enforce quarantine measures.44.“Israel to use ‘anti-terror’ technology to counter coronavirus”: al-Jazeera An important consequence of these emergency measures is delay of Netanyahu’s corruption trials by an additional two months.45.“Gantz Chosen To Form Government, Netanyahu Argues To Stay PM Over Coronavirus Effects”: NPR
Meanwhile, the Palestinian territories have also been gripped by COVID-19 cases, with over 52 incidents reported as of March 20. On March 5, President Mahmoud Abbas announced a state of emergency and measures were taken to close sites like the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.46.“Palestinians declare state of emergency over coronavirus: prime minister”: Reuters On March 6, Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh announced a sweeping set of emergency restrictions. Schools were closed, tourist sites locked down, and tourist hotel reservations were completely forcibly cancelled.47.“Abbas Declares State of Emergency for One Month over Coronavirus”: Palestine Chronicle As of March 13, the WHO has confirmed over 35 cases in the West Bank.48.“Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Update 8 occupied Palestinian territory, March 13, 2020”: WHO
When examined contextually, COVID-19 emerged in a period of political instability in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. For Israel, the disease reared its head in the middle of Israel’s third set of Knesset elections. Thousands of quarantined individuals were given specialised voting booths for the March 2 elections, but some have questioned as to whether or not the disease played a role in limiting voter turnout.49.Daniel Semet, “Israel exemplifies how to respond to the coronavirus”: Atlantic Council The results of the election revealed that once again, Israel’s Knesset would face deadlock and uncertainty arose as to whether or not the country could form a government. On Thursday, March 12, it appeared that Netanyahu and Benny Gantz of the Blue and White coalition were willing to discuss the possibility of a unity government to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.50.Michael Bachner, “Netanyahu, Gantz agree to discuss emergency government to combat coronavirus”: Times of Israel In a televised speech, Netanyahu declared that such a government would be “an emergency government for a limited time, and [where] we will fight together to save the lives of tens of thousands of citizens.”51.Ibid
Gantz, a strong opponent of Netanyahu, has appeared to disregard such statements. Pushing forward with his anti-Netanyahu rhetoric, Gantz appears close to ending the gridlock in the Israeli Knesset.52.Benny Gantz: Twitter On March 15, it was reported that Gantz had secured an alliance with two key parties: the Arab Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu. Netanyahu continued to urge Gantz to consider an emergency unity government in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, but it now appears that Gantz will be given the opportunity to form his own government.53.Benjamin Netanyahu: Twitter Gantz has also focused his rhetoric on solving the COVID-19 situation and has recently indicated that he may accept Netanyahu’s offers of discussion.54.“Gantz opens door to unity government under Netanyahu”: Jerusalem Post However, it remains uncertain as to how these tense political dynamics will continue to shape as the disease runs its course.
For the Palestinians, the state of emergency declared by Mahmoud Abbas has resulted in criticism. In addition to the emergency measures, the Palestinian Parliament was effectively closed, and significant power was transferred to the president.55.“Palestinians declare state of emergency over coronavirus: prime minister”: Reuters Many Palestinians in the West Bank have viewed such moves as being, to some extent, politically motivated. Shortly after these measures were implemented, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hussam Khader, was arrested by Palestinian security forces.56.Ahmad Melhem, ” Palestinian COVID-19 state of emergency raises other fears”: al-Monitor Further concerns remain about the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority in dealing with the virus. Complicating the situation further is the Israeli presence, and few are certain about the level of cooperation or conflict that should emerge depending on who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.
However, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a vested interest in maintaining stability in the Gaza Strip. For some time, there were no reported cases in the area and many hoped to maintain the status quo. 57.“Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Update 8 occupied Palestinian territory, March 13, 2020”: WHO Should infection break out in the densely populated environment, the consequences would be staggering. Already the Gaza Strip is marked by a lack of resources and the ongoing control of the area by Hamas represents a further diplomatic wrinkle.58.Ramzy Baroud, “A Terrifying Scenario: Coronavirus in ‘Quarantined’ Gaza”: Middle East Monitor The Gaza Strip is reliant on international humanitarian aid, but as countries all over the world face COVID-19, it can be assumed that such aid will dramatically decrease.59.Anna Ahronheim, “Concern of potential coronavirus outbreak in Gaza grows”: Jerusalem Post While Israel and the Palestinian Authority have some plans for natural crises in the Gaza Strip, an official in Israel noted that these measures were not ready to face the threat of something as large as COVID-19.60.“Gaza raises dilemmas for Israel”: Haaretz In fact, many Gazan doctors have reported that they had severe shortages of equipment specifically designed to fight COVID-19.61.“COGAT coordinates the delivery of more coronavirus equipment into Gaza”: Jerusalem Post Some analysts believe that Hamas also recognizes the uncertainty posed by virus, as the border with Israel has remained relatively quiet and discussions are underway as to whether or not the Gazan “March of Return” set for March 31 would be postponed.62.Yoni ben Menachem, “Will the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Quiet the Gaza Strip?”: JCPA However, these considerations must now contend with reality, as on March 21, the first cases of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip were finally reported.63.Fares Akram, “Palestinians report 1st cases of coronavirus in Gaza Strip”: Yahoo News
Conclusions and Other Considerations
The Levant is not a region to be considered in a vacuum. Although these countries have begun to announce border closures and city-wide quarantines, the fluid and porous nature of borders in the Arab World present a more complicated situation. Jordan has attempted to close its borders with its immediate neighbours, but the efficacy of such policies, especially as a reactive measure, remain uncertain.64.Areeb Ullah, “Coronavirus: Jordan cancels flights and bans prayers at mosques”: Middle East Eye For instance, such a measure must also be contextualised by the high number of Egyptian migrant labourers in the Jordan and Lebanon.65.Susan Razzaz, “A Challenging Market Becomes More Challenging: Jordanian Workers, Migrant Workers, and Refugees in the Jordanian Labour Market”: International Labour Organization Movement between these countries, until recently, has been constant.66.Michael Young, “Migrant Workers in Lebanon”: Lebanese NGO Forum Meanwhile, official infection reports from Egypt are assumed to be widely inaccurate, and the very nature of the Egyptian medical system means that millions of rural and poor citizens are unable to be tested and find the care they need. Egypt, a country of over 95 million, faces a huge disparity in what it can realistically mitigate and those that require assistance. These discussions must also factor Syria, where large numbers of internally displaced peoples facing constant warfare may soon deal with a highly infectious virus.67.Shivan Ibrahim, “Is COVID-19 lurking in Syria’s Kurdish northeast?”: al-Monitor
When tied together, the situation of the Levant is in flux. COVID-19 has the capacity to wreak havoc on the already dour socioeconomic and sociopolitical situations of these countries. With large debts, declining economics, and unstable governments, many Levantine nations will face a host of problems months and years after the virus has been contained. Ongoing issues over resources in the Eastern Mediterranean sea basin, water rights, and trade may all soon be at the forefront, sparking another series of conflicts in the region. The global downturn presented by COVID-19 may be the catalyst needed to further destabilise an already unstable region.
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