Faisal Al Yafai
Covid-19 pandemic is an extraordinary event, unprecedented in scale and reach,
and with previously unimaginable political measures taken, especially in
Europe, which is now the epicentre of the pandemic.
police at the border with France in La Jonquera, Spain, on March 17, 2020. Will
people in the Middle East accept similar restrictions? Photo: AFP/Adria Salido
Zarco/NurPhoto via Getty Images
far-reaching have some of these political measures been that they have
overturned some fundamental assumptions about Western societies.
coronavirus continues to spread to other countries, those societies, including
those in the Middle East, may also find political assumptions rapidly
assumption is that major decisions by Western governments must be preceded by
some public discussion. All Western countries are democracies, but the
extraordinary and far-reaching political decisions made over the past few weeks
have been taken with barely any public discussion.
countrywide lockdown happened overnight. France shut almost the entire public
space – restaurants, bars, cinemas – with four hours’ notice. In Denmark,
parents were given a day to prepare for all schools closing. This week, the
whole of the European Union shut its external borders with less than 12 hours’
impossible to think of any modern political decisions of such consequence that
have been made with such little discussion – and indeed with so little dissent.
It is often
thought that citizens of the West are, to various degrees, mistrustful of
government power and particularly of intrusion and overreach. Yet the pandemic
has shown that, in fact, at a moment of crisis, citizens accept wide-ranging
government action – and indeed demand even more intrusive government action.
and France, two countries with a long history of workers’ strikes and civil disobedience,
have mostly responded to draconian measures peacefully. Even in the UK, a
country so mistrustful of the state that, almost alone in Europe, it has no
national identity cards, the public is calling for more radical, far-reaching
assumption is that the networks on which life depends are robust. For most
ordinary people, the realization that this is not the case has been perhaps the
biggest shock of the crisis. The idea that supermarkets could run out of
essential items – food and medicines – has been a recurring theme of
appeared to believe that there were, somewhere, government warehouses full of
essential goods, ready to be used in just such a crisis. No such warehouses
airlines have been grounded and many of them risk collapse. The financial
markets are in turmoil. The same networks that allowed cheap products, cheap
food and cheap holidays have been found wanting in a crisis.
assumption was that the worst aspects of human nature could be constrained by
liberal societies. The crisis has certainly brought out the best in many
countries. But racism has returned and small, daily acts of anger are common.
Even the United States seeking exclusive use of a coronavirus vaccine being
developed by a German company points to an ugly underbelly, now exposed.
of that happen in the Middle East?
exception of Iran, the Middle East has so far avoided the huge number of
infections seen in East Asia and Europe. But that may yet change. So much about
this outbreak has been unexpected and has altered almost overnight.
some of what is happening in Europe has reached the Middle East. Panic buying
is a feature of several countries now and, as some viral examples of racism
toward Asians demonstrate, the region is not immune to that strain of
in the region have tried to take a two-pronged approach: prepare for the
effects of mass infections, and use fiscal stimulus to mitigate the effects of
widespread isolation on the economy. Some have been able to push through
decisive actions more rapidly than others.
pledged more than US$6 billion to help its economy; Saudi Arabia has pledged
$13 billion, aimed mainly at small and medium-sized businesses. And the United
Arab Emirates is preparing a war-chest of $27 billion, almost as much as the EU
bloc itself. There has thus been swift action even before a crisis has settled
drastic action is required, would the public be as quiet as in Europe? With
many Middle East governments ranging from authoritarian to interventionist, the
assumption must be that the public would more readily accept it if forceful
measures were needed.
coronavirus spreads, it is overturning political assumptions. It may yet do so
in the Middle East. For now, the best of those to be overturned would be that a
region in the midst of so much mass upheaval is not prepared for a mass
article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent
commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets
such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern
Europe, Asia and Africa.
Headline: Can the Middle East adapt as the West has had to?
Source: The Asia Times