Middle East missing ‘window of opportunity’ to contain coronavirus, warns the WHO

Governments in the Middle East need to act fast to limit the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned in a stark message to the region’s growing number of cases.

While the region has not seen similar numbers as Europe and America, the total number of people infected with COVID-19 rose to nearly 60,000 yesterday, doubling in one week. Their low numbers though may still cripple the relatively weak and underperforming health systems, warned WHO.

“New cases have been reported in some of the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO’s director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Djibouti, as well as Middle Eastern states.

“Even in countries with stronger heath systems, we have seen a worrying spike in the numbers of cases and deaths reported,” he said in a statement.

READ: Global death toll from coronavirus exceeds 50,000

“We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day,” warned Al-Mandhari, adding that the number of cases indicated that the virus was spreading “rapidly” at local and community level.

Coronavirus and the world [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Coronavirus and the world [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Yemen is thought to be particularly vulnerable. The war-torn state which has suffered a crippling blockade and famine over the past five years, does not possess the infrastructure to be able to deal with a wide-scale outbreak. It has already been struggling with overlapping infectious diseases including cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever, and large numbers of people have been displaced by the war.

READ: Sudan quarantines soldiers returning from Yemen

Yesterday the World Bank said that it would provide $26.9 million in emergency funding to help the WHO and local authorities improve capacity for detecting, containing and treating the coronavirus.

The region also has a large concentration of refugees who are particularly vulnerable to any large outbreak. This week the EU approved a $262 million aid package to support countries hosting Syrians refugees.

One of the major concerns is that the cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus are under-reported and that many countries with weak governments and health systems eroded by conflict will struggle to cope.

Syria for instance is said to be doing just that, according to the UN. The low number of coronavirus cases recorded in Syria are merely “the tip of the iceberg”, warned Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, adding that the country can expect “a devastating impact”.