While the middle-class population and rich people live in their apartments, houses and villas, have a secure income and are able to practice social distancing, the majority of people who live in poverty and refugees camps cannot afford not to work and cannot apply the distancing measures. Unless they receive support from the local community or an NGO, many of them will not even be able to stay at home as they have to work to feed their families. Staying at home is a luxury for many, but for some, it is simply not an option. One Syrian refugee self-immolated because he was unable to pay the rent.
No universal safety net
The pandemic has hit people with jobs in tourism and services hard. As the lockdown, curfews and regional isolation continue, more people will lose their jobs and their savings; the impact could go on for months, if not years. In Egypt, the tourism industry alone accounts for 15% of GDP. In Jordan the figure is 14%, in Tunisia 12% and Morocco 8%. In other words, millions of people’s livelihoods are being shut down and these people are waiting for something to happen.
Not all states in the Middle East have developed a universal programme to support those people in such an emergency. Moreover, although there have been a variety of state-initiated economic responses, no country is in a position to manage the socio-economic consequences of millions of people losing their income.
States in the Middle East did not prepare for the pandemic, yet they have responded to it with the same draconian measures adopted by the Chinese, despite the fact that an enormous number of people will lose their jobs. Moreover, there is also the impact on their impoverished populations to be considered. Most of the economic response to the pandemic is to try and save the big companies and the economy at a national level, while forgetting those who rely on a daily income.
Many Middle Eastern states will see this pandemic and the uniqueness of the situation as an opportunity to extend their power, relying on surveillance, a domestic restriction of movement and mass tracing. Such measures will further undermine what democratic principles are in place, empowering governments to exercise increasing authority over people’s lives and their freedoms.
The current pandemic finds the Middle East at yet another crossroads – how states in the region will act once it is over remains to be seen. The lack of transparency in some countries, the failure to put together an economic response favouring the poor, grievous inequalities and the new draconian measures introduced to fight coronavirus are all indications that the state of emergency in the region is likely to be ongoing.
© Qantara.de 2020
Abdalhadi Alijla is post-doctoral fellow for the Max Weber Stiftung at the Orient Institute in Beirut (OIB) and co-leader of Global Migration and Human Rights at Global Young Academy.