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Covid-19 emergency response in MENA countries
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Covid-19 emergency response in MENA countries

Over 2.2 million covid-19 cases have been recorded in the MENA region. More than 26,000 people have already died in Iran and the infection numbers continue to rise. Iraq has the most confirmed cases among Arab countries, followed by Saudi Arabia and Morocco. There are different levels of health system preparedness across the MENA countries; strict curbing measures implemented in the initial stages of the pandemic proved to be efficient in limiting deaths and the spread of the pandemic in some countries, while others struggled to contain the spread of the virus.

THE STAR PERFORMERS: STRONG INITIAL RESPONSE

Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia took strong and proactive measures in the very early stages of the outbreak and were the initial best performers in the MENA region between March and August. These countries had broadly similar actions against covid-19, likely due to their structural similarities- all of them being middle-income economies with strong coercive set-up.

Their initial strong security and public health responses were commendable. All three had proclaimed a state of national emergency as early as March 2020, shut borders and suspended flights, imposed curfews, shut down schools, restricted public gatherings, and imposed a mandatory general lockdown and strong social distancing.

As a result, Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia maintained relatively low numbers of infections and deaths in the initial phase, as compared to their regional neighbors. Their performance was compared to global leaders such as Australia and South Korea. At that time Jordan reported 10 infections per million people per day. Tunisia reported less than 20 infections per million people while Morocco's new daily cases never crossed 40 per million people before September 2020.

Effective institutional coordination in these countries was also responsible for their success. Tunisia has one of the most advanced health systems across the MENA region. Strong institutions such as the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases along with national and regional committees that are in charge of disaster management, were highly efficient in delivering health support.

A special committee was also created by the government- the National Coronavirus Response Authority, to handle the epidemiological aspects of the pandemic as well as maintain coordination between other institutions. Jordan, too, benefited from efficient pre-existing health structures, particularly the National Committee for Epidemics, which had a strategized response against the pandemic.

A new body was formed- the Coronavirus Crisis Cell, like Tunisia, to manage and coordinate different institutions. In Morocco, two committees were formed in March 2020 to respond to the health and economic aspects of the pandemic respectively. However, these institutions often struggled with miscommunication with the public, regarding their decisions.

Few other countries also imposed restrictions on movement and social distancing measures at an early stage. For instance, Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina and banned entry to religious sites in these two cities as early as February 2020. Face masks were made mandatory in all public places in most MENA countries. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, penalties for non-compliance ranged from heavy fines to prison sentencing.

SHORT SUCCESS: SECOND WAVE AND WORSENING ECONOMIES

The success witnessed in the initial stage of the pandemic was however short-lived. With the advent of the second wave, the three leading countries- Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia eventually succumbed to pressure to strike a balance between lifting restrictions to revive the worsening economy and limiting the number of human losses.

They grappled to mitigate the health and economic issues and with the medical situation becoming uncontrolled the public health system was stretched beyond capacity. New cases and deaths spiked between September and January in these countries. Infections in Jordan peaked in March 2021.

The second wave also affected the Maghreb and other weaker economies in North Africa and the Levant. Lack of hospital beds and low testing capacities is a major concern in fragile and conflict-affected countries like Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority. The first wave had already left government hospitals and their personnel exhausted in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon.

VACCINATION DRIVE

Today Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia are hoping to contain the pandemic by vaccinating a majority of their population. However, they are facing major challenges as the primary concern is now producing and buying vaccines instead of developing successful and safe vaccines.

Morocco could only vaccinate 5.7 million out of a goal of 25 million in around six weeks. Tunisia administered 0.02 doses per 100 people and is facing a shortage of supply. Jordan has administered about 200,000 doses since its vaccination campaign. It is not MENA in question but the entire world that is facing issues of a vaccine shortage.

UPGRADING THE PUBLIC HEALTH SECTOR

All these months of battling the pandemic have highlighted significant gaps in the health sector of the MENA region, including the Moroccan, Jordanian, and Tunisian health systems. With limited intensive care units, poor equipment, regional inconsistencies in terms of access to medical care, and shortage of medical personnel, all of them are currently stretched beyond capacity.

There is an urgent need for governments of these countries to allocate larger resources for public health, spend in training more medical professionals, expand emergency units, increase hospital bends, improve data, speed up the testing process and implement reforms to address the regional disparity in terms of healthcare and its access.

The ongoing crisis has put the public sector to the test, forcing the governments to make well thought and stable decisions, tackle crisis coordination, and implement effective measures to protect communities in danger. It also stresses the importance of underlying fundamental issues, loopholes in government management, and the need to have a strong-knit civil society.

 

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