Coronavirus sweeps through the Middle East, fails to stop killing

by Claude Salhani

As fighting continues in various parts of the Middle East, the appearance of coronavirus heralds more deaths among communities are already living with the tragedy of war.

For many in the Middle East, it is almost as though death has become a way of life. Iraqis, for example, lived under US occupation from 2003-10. Prior to that was the 8-year Iran-Iraq war that claimed half a million lives. Most Iraqis under the age of 25 have known nothing but war so a virus, deadly as it may be, is hardly something to frighten the children of generations of conflict.

“Political parties and corruption are an epidemic that is much more dangerous than the coronavirus,” a university student in Diwaniya told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Iraqis have been protesting against government incompetence, poor public services and foreign political meddling, mainly from Iran. When the coronavirus reached Iraq, it added another item to the list of protesters’ grievances.

“The real virus is Iraqi politicians,” an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad told AFP. “We are immune to almost everything else.”

The same can be said of Iran, which suffered similar losses in the war, including soldiers who fell victim to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. Syria’s refugees of its 9-year civil war — numbering 5 million-6 million out of a total population of about 18 million — are too preoccupied by the harsh realities of surviving the life of a refugee than to worry about what, for many, may pass as an abstract concept.

Just as it may seem not easy to scare Iraqis over a virus, the same would apply to refugees without shelter and countries amid civil war. Lives are lost too often in parts of the Middle East compared with the more developed countries in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. In less developed countries the presence of the virus is underestimated, underreported and resources are limited to properly fight the threat.

The Iranian government says it has the situation under control when, in fact, it does not. The solution from Tehran is to misrepresent facts and blame the United States — the Great Satan — killing two birds with one stone. Three, if you count the victims of the virus.

Western television networks recorded an Iranian doctor speaking from a hospital emergency room in Tehran stressing that Iran lacked the proper resources needed to properly and effectively fight the disease.

In Iraq, anti-government demonstrators, who lost faith in the government and have mobilised since October, have picked up where the government dropped the ball, giving out leaflets and free medical masks, which have more than doubled in price in local markets.

The World Health Organisation said Iraq, with fewer than ten doctors for every 10,000 residents, is poorly prepared for an epidemic.

Inside medical centres, blood-stained sinks in washrooms and ill-equipped amenities have become a common sight. Hasan Khallati, a member of the parliament’s health committee, insisted to AFP that Iraq’s “hospitals and health-care facilities are fully equipped to deal with the outbreak” of COVID-19.

Available data tell a different story.

Iraq reported its first coronavirus case in an Iranian national studying at a religious seminary in the southern shrine city of Najaf. The number of diagnosed infections has since jumped to 19, all traced to Iran, where at least 54 people are reported to have died from the virus.

The virus is likely to slow traffic from Iran into Iraq but Iraq remains Iran’s largest export market and a popular destination for Iranian pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Many Iraqis cross the border for business, tourism, medical treatment and religious studies

“We think there are cases the government has not yet declared,” a medical student told AFP at a protest camp in the southern city of Diwaniya. “They need to be transparent with the people.”

The concept of transparency, however, does not seem to appear anywhere in the Iranian or Iraqi governments’ rule books.

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