LONDON - It’s almost a year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. The Middle East was one of the first regions to be hit outside China, and the pandemic has exacerbated existing crises caused by conflict and forced migration.
Iran recorded its first coronavirus infections in February 2020, one of the first outbreaks outside Wuhan. Within days it had become a global epicenter as hospitals filled with patients.
Iranian government figures suggest 60,000 people have died since the outbreak began but the true number is likely far higher, says Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit focusing on foreign policy and security. He believes early mistakes by the government cost lives.
“You saw them first deny it, then downplay it,” Taleblu told VOA. “The challenge is that the health and welfare of its own people is not priority No. 1. And when you’re facing a global pandemic, that means your citizens are going to bear the brunt of it.”
Iran insists it did all it could to contain the outbreak and denied accusations that it covered up the true number of deaths. By the time the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, the virus had spread across the Middle East.
In Yemen and Syria, countries racked by deep-rooted conflicts, the pandemic compounded the pressure on fragile health systems. In May, the United Nations warned that the Yemeni health system, which was already severely weakened by years of fighting, had essentially collapsed.
The festival of Eid al-Fitr in May, the end of Ramadan, was marked with somber, socially distanced worship across the Muslim world.
In Lebanon, economic and political crises compounded by the pandemic and exacerbated by the August explosion in Beirut port, pushed the country to the brink.
By September there were worsening outbreaks in several refugee camps in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
As third waves of the pandemic gripped Europe, the United States and Latin America at the end of 2020, the Middle East fared better than the World Health Organization had feared — but it warns the situation remains precarious.
“Around 6 million people in the region caught the virus” since the beginning of the pandemic, said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, in a press conference last month.
“Unfortunately, around 140,000 people died,” he added. “In our region, where people and healthcare institutions suffer constantly with war, natural disasters and diseases, this virus has demanded all our efforts.”
That effort is now being directed toward vaccinations. Israel has rolled out the fastest mass vaccination program in the world as over half the population has received a first dose. The country began gradually lifting its coronavirus lockdown measures last month, with services such as hair salons and gyms allowed to reopen. Early data suggests the vaccination program is helping to curb the spread of the virus.
Dr. Peter Drobac, a global health expert at the University of Oxford, says early planning was key. “No. 1, they did some things right in terms of purchasing agreements and getting early access to the vaccines,” Drobac told VOA. “But really this is all about operations and organization.”
Vaccination rates vary sharply across the Middle East. The Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza lag far behind Israel. The United Nations says Israel should provide vaccines under international law; the Israeli government says healthcare is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, under the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Many countries in the region are using Chinese and Russian-made vaccines and are hoping to benefit from the global COVAX program which provides vaccines to low- and middle-income nations. Deliveries of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccine under the program began last month.
Iran remains the worst-hit country in the region. Last month Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for stricter border controls, warning that another wave of the pandemic could hit the country. “More attention must be paid to foreign entries, especially from countries infected with new variants of the virus,” Rouhani said Feb. 13 in a meeting of the national anti-COVID-19 headquarters in Tehran.
The World Health Organization is urging countries to remain vigilant, as the new virus mutations could be more infectious and resistant to vaccines.