Fear and Loathing in 2020: Coronavirus Wallops the Middle East

Middle East

Nearly 150,000 have died in the region due to the coronavirus pandemic but vaccines boost hope for 2021

Undoubtedly the coronavirus pandemic surpasses all other comers as 2020’s top news story.

Responsible for the deaths of close to 150,000 citizens of the Middle East, the virus swept across the region, enveloping everyone and everything like the hot wind and sand of a khamsin. Every aspect of life – politics, economics, health care and military – has been changed in its wake.

By the end of 2020, three countries in the region placed among the top 25 countries with the highest publicly known coronavirus infection cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center.

Turkey, with almost 2.2 million cases; Iran, with 1.2 million cases; and Iraq, with over 590,000 cases, have brought added notoriety to the Middle East.

Deaths from the virus raged in the region led by Iran (55,095), Turkey, (20,642), Iraq (12,808), Pakistan (10,105), Egypt (7,576) and Morocco (7,355).

However, deaths per 100,000 population provide a different picture.

Iran once again led the region with 67 deaths per 100,000, was followed by Tunisia at 39, Jordan at 38, Israel at 37, Iraq at 33, Oman at 31, the Palestinian Territories at 29.5, Turkey at 24, Bahrain and Kuwait both at 22, Libya and Lebanon both at 21, and Morocco at 20 deaths per 100,000. Egypt and Pakistan, on the other hand, showed much lower figures per 100,000, with 7 and 4.7, respectively.

Looking at the situation from a different angle, that of case fatality ratios (which is the number of deaths divided by the number of confirmed cases), provides an insight into how successful – or not – local health care is in handling the virus.

Yemen – with its ongoing civil war – is the world leader with a 29.1% case fatality ratio. To understand the enormity of this number, a person in Yemen infected with the coronavirus is more than three times as likely to die from the virus as a person in the next closest country on the list, Mexico, with a case fatality ratio of 8.8%.

Regionally, Syria comes next with a case fatality rate of 6.6%, Egypt at 5.6%, Iran at 4.5%, Afghanistan at 4.2%, Tunisia at 3.4%, and Iraq at 2.2%, while Saudi Arabia is at 1.7%, Israel at 0.8%, and the United Arab Emirates at 0.3%.

Vaccines began receiving regulatory approvals and arriving in countries around the region near the end of 2020. Some countries began large-scale vaccination operations, with Israel inoculating close to 800,000 people in the last two weeks of December.

COVAX, founded earlier in 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Union and France, is working closely with GAVI – the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization – to assist lower-income countries with obtaining coronavirus vaccines. Some 190 countries around the world have signed up to participate in the program.

COVAX supports research, development and manufacturing of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates and negotiates their prices. It purports that all participating countries, regardless of income levels, will have equal access to vaccines. The group initially aims to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021.

Of the 92 low-income and lower-middle-income countries or territories eligible to have vaccines funded by GAVI’s Advanced Market Commitment financial mechanism, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen are in the lower-income bracket while Egypt, Algeria, Djibouti, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority have lower-middle-income status.

The wealthier countries in the region have begun vaccinating their citizens: Oman started on December 27; Bahrain on December 25; the UAE on December 23; Saudi Arabia on December 25; and Kuwait on 24 December.

Other countries like Morocco and the UAE inoculated parts of their population during phase 3 clinical trials for China’s Sinopharm vaccine in September and October. In September, Pakistan took part in phase 3 trials for another Chinese vaccine, from CanSino Biologics.

Reaching into early 2021, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan all reported they will obtain vaccines by then.

The Palestinian Authority’s health ministry said that it will receive vaccines in early- to mid-January.  A senior PA health official last weekend told the Voice of Palestine Radio that it will be receiving four million doses of the Russian-made vaccine.

The movement toward the arrival of vaccines provides a much-needed boost to the region’s optimism for the new year. Yet questions remain about how many vaccinations each country will obtain and what percentage of the population will be inoculated.

Check back with The Media Line in 2021 for further details.

Here are the latest COVID-19 numbers for the Middle East and North Africa as of 12:30 pm Greenwich Mean Time (UTC±0) on Thursday.

Country Confirmed cases Deaths Recovered Active Cases
Afghanistan 52,513 2,198 42,006 8,309
Algeria 99,311 2,751 66,815 29,705
Bahrain 92,425 352 90,026 2,047
Cyprus 22,019 119 2,057 19,843
Djibouti 5,824 61 5,723 47
Egypt 136,644 7,576 111,451 17,617
Iran 1,225,142 55,223 988,833 181,086
Iraq 594,442 12,808 536,348 42,286
Israel 419,943 3,318 374,148 42,487
Jordan 293,067 3,815 268,843 20,409
Kuwait 150,298 933 146,284 3,081
Lebanon 177,996 1,456 126,460 50,080
Libya 100,277 1,478 72,107 26,692
Mauritania 14,191 339 11,095 2,757
Morocco 437,332 7,355 405,251 24,726
Oman 128,867 1,499 121,890 5,478
Pakistan 479,715 10,105 435,073 34,537
Palestinian Territories 138,004 1400 117,183 19,421
Qatar 143,834 245 141,422 2,167
Saudi Arabia 362,601 6,214 353,682 2,705
Somalia 4,714 130 3,612 972
Sudan 23,316 1,468 13,524 8,324
Syria 11,344 704 5,296 5,344
Tunisia 137,216 4,620 104,980 27,616
Turkey 2,194,272 20,642 2,078,629 95,001
United Arab Emirates 206,092 665 183,007 22,420
Yemen 2,097 610 1,392 95
Total 7,653,496 148,084 6,807,137 695,252

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