By Hafed Al-Ghwell
Just as the coronavirus is more dangerous to people with underlying medical conditions, the Middle East and North Africa faces a crisis caused not by the coronavirus alone, but also by their already existing economic, social and political fragility.
Combined with the new reality sweeping the world, they form a “perfect storm” that threatens the region in ways that are more dangerous than anything it has faced for decades.
Throughout the region it is hard to find a single country that one can honestly say is strong enough to face what is about to happen.
Country after country has been struggling for years with fundamental challenges;
civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, major debt crises in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere, overburdened budgets and great poverty in Egypt and Morocco, countries that depend on foreign aid, tourism and investments, such as Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt — even oil-rich economies are facing budget constraints as oil prices collapse because of over supply and slowing economic activity.
In the face of this storm, governments throughout the region have some immediate concerns, many of which carry within them the seeds of deeper challenges to come soon if this global crisis persists.
Thousands of Arabs seek medical care in Europe, the US and elsewhere every year because healthcare systems in almost all Arab countries are weak, and incapable of handling a pandemic.
These fragile healthcare systems will be put under enormous additional pressure as more cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed.
Combined with travel bans preventing anyone from leaving their own countries, and increasing difficulty in procuring medical equipment and medicines as supply chains stall, this is a real ticking bomb.
Another pressing issue will be how the region copes with inevitable shortages of food and medical supplies. Much of the region, if not all, depends heavily on imported goods, not only in the medical sector but also food and basic necessities.
This dependency will be increasingly difficult to overcome as the global supply chain comes under intensified pressure and is interrupted, in some parts at least, for the foreseeable future.
The lack of any long-term food security will be exposed and there will be major shortages.
The old traditional ways of obtaining hard currency and help in financing government budgets — foreign aid, international loans, tourism, foreign direct investment, transfers and remittances from expats, or even exporting labor to other countries — will no longer work.
As countries around the world close their borders, take their own strict economic measures, increase their own debt and set their own economic incentive packaging to minimize the impact of the crises on their own people and labor forces, it will be more difficult for developing countries to find help.
There is a weak underlying foundation to much of the region’s political and economic systems, with oppression, corruption, top-down decision making and lack of freedom of information and debate all serving to deny both governments and societies the proper tools to address weaknesses in the system and reach consensus on how to tackle these challenges in a unified manner.
This lack of the proper tools of governance means that as economic and social pressure builds, the chances of uprisings will increase, exposing the region to another potential cycle of revolts and chaos.
The region’s top priority at the moment, in the face of these challenges, is to do anything it can to stop the spread of COVID-19.
All resources need to be focused on these efforts to prevent a temporary health crisis from becoming a major economic, social, and political tsunami that will overwhelm governments in the region.
The second priority is to strengthen social safety nets for the most vulnerable in society; those who have no financial capacity to withstand even a short-term disruption to their incomes.
This should include a combination of fiscal policy tools as recommended by the International Monetary Fund, such as a mix of targeted policies on hard-hit sectors and populations, including tax relief, government fees and cash transfers, and reprioritizing spending within the existing fiscal budgets, tight as they may be.
Historical evidence suggests that developing countries with much less global connectivity, such as those in the Arab world, tend to feel the full impact of such global crises a little later than more globalized economies.
With that in mind, the Arab world is well advised to scale up its combined response to the pandemic much more quickly than it is doing now. The full force of this storm is yet to come.
The only real protection only from the disease and from its consequences is to reduce the level of its penetration and spread.
The region will simply not be able to protect itself from the cascading wave of political, economic, and social earthquake that is coming, if it fails in doing this.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.