Flattening the coronavirus curve in the Arab world

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The Middle East is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, as about 2,000 have died around the region and tens of thousands more are infected. Countries are unequally attempting to “flatten their curves” by slowing the spread of the contagion, but which countries in the region are winning the battle against COVID-19?

Nearly two months after the epidemic first started in China, the rest of the world is registering record high figures of infection. While China appears to be progressively containing the pandemic, as seen in its decision to lift the lockdown on the coronavirus epicenter of the Hubei province, the Middle East region is now faced with the spreading virus.

Iran has the highest number of cases in the region, with over 24,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths. Arab countries are faring much better in terms of the infection, with 582 cases in Saudi Arabia, 304 cases and four deaths in Lebanon, 501 cases in Qatar, 366 cases and 19 deaths in Egypt, 266 cases and 23 deaths in Iraq, 230 cases and 17 deaths in Algeria, 198 cases and two deaths in the UAE, 143 and four deaths in Morocco, among many others.

“The Arab world has managed relatively well the pandemic containment response, compared to Europe,” said Dr Souha Kanj, an expert in infectious disease at the American University of Beirut Medical Center.

According to a graph published by Virtual Capitalist the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar appear to be beginning to flatten their curves, while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been able to postpone the contagion, which is growing nonetheless.

“Flattening the curve reduces case numbers and deaths, in a bid to prevent overwhelming healthcare systems,” said Fadi Alsous, head of the cardiology section, at the Kingdom Hospital in Saudi Arabia.

Strict measures taken by regional governments have slowed down the contagion in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia has taken important steps, such as suspending prayers in Mecca and Medina and the pilgrimage of Umra,“ added Kanj.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait have all imposed curfews on their population. In Saudi Arabia, those who violate the nightly curfew will be fined $2,663, and face jail time. Lebanon took early measures that have escalated to become a quasi-shutdown, excluding critical services explained Dr Shadi Saleh, head of the Global Health Institute. Jordan has also imposed a restriction on movement, and created a scheme for delivering necessities.

“These measures have allowed to slowdown the contagion in countries known to have large expat population,” points out Kanj. Testing, an essential tool in the fight against the virus, has been used aggressively by certain countries.

“Kuwait for example adopted a very aggressive testing strategy that resulted in approximately 28,000 tests in the first days or weeks,” said Dr Saleh. By March 16, the UAE had carried out more than 125,000 tests.

Dr. Saleh believes nonetheless that one of the region’s main weaknesses is the absence of accurate infection figures. In some countries, testing is either not conducted widely enough or cases are not reported. As an example, Syria has only one case so far, while Yemen, which has adopted a minimal testing process, has reported none.

Yet transparent information remains essential to defeating the virus and to saving millions of lives across the region.