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The Effects of Fighting the Epidemic on Forces of Change

The Effects of Fighting the Epidemic on Forces of Change

Friday, 3 April, 2020 - 10:45
People take part in a protest demanding immediate political change in Algiers, Algeria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

Nadim Houry

No one can predict all the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but three issues deserve our attention. The MENA region did indeed suffer more from inequality than any other.

Although the virus does not discriminate based on wealth, income determines which mechanisms are at hand to deal with it. For, all over the world, workers who have low salaries cannot do their job remotely (from home) and do not receive their wages if they are absent from work.

As the quarantines persist and economies enter recession, the poorest segments of society- who account for the majority of citizens- will be disproportionately impacted. Refugees, as well as migrant workers, will find it impossible to deal with the implications of this situation. With that, none of the governments of the region has a plan to limit the economic damage and ameliorate the growing divisions of their societies.

The coronavirus will also have effects that are more far-reaching than one would predict for other parts of the world. Indeed, it succeeded at clearing the streets that had been full of protesters in Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq, and we saw the armies of the regions regain control of public squares under the pretext of enforcing the quarantine.

Authoritarian regimes can exploit the epidemic to further entrench their social control through measures that are promoted as necessary for containing the virus, allowing it to also track the movements of demonstrators and the opposition.

Finally, there are three active war zones in the region in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the infrastructure of health services has been destroyed millions displaced. If this virus were to spread in these countries, they would be ruinous. One who is confronting this invisible enemy could think that the warring factions and their regional and international backers will seize the moment to try to end the conflicts. This may seem hopelessly naive, but perhaps the virus will succeed in concentrating the minds of "warlords" of the region in ways that peoples’ years-long suffering has not been able to.

Nadim Houry is Executive Director of Arab Reform Initiative

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