8 April 2020 — With the coronavirus pandemic threatening further suffering in countries already experiencing conflict in the Middle East, the United Nations is working to stop COVID-19 from taking hold in the war-ravaged region, where humanitarian needs are already enormous.

“The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all these theatres of conflict,” Secretary-General António Guterres has warned, adding: “There should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against COVID-19.”

The Secretary-General has called for an immediate ceasefire in all corners of the globe in an effort to prevent a major health crisis from further ravishing conflict zones.

In addition to the rising death toll and extremely heavy burden on health-care systems, the Arab region is already suffering from the alarming loss of jobs due to COVID-19. More than 1.7 million jobs could be lost in 2020, according to the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), whose membership comprises 18 Arab States.

ESCWA says their combined gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to decline by at least $42 billion in 2020. The figure could be higher, with the compounding effect of low oil prices and the dramatic slowdown of economies due to the closure of public institutions and private sector enterprises. Projections indicate that the longer the lockdown continues, the higher the cost for economies in the region.

WHO map of COVID-19 cases in the Middle East region

An additional 8.3 million people ae at risk of falling into poverty in the Arab region, which could increase the number of undernourished people by about 2 million.  101.4 million people in the region are already classified as poor, and 52 million are undernourished.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean of the World Health Organization (WHO), in a recent briefing. “We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day… We cannot allow this virus to take hold of our Region.”

He said COVID-19 can only be controlled using aggressive, appropriate measures, and an inclusive approach that is built around solidarity and action, protecting every individual’s rights to life and health.

There are two ways in which this transmission can be controlled, he emphasized. First, countries need to be more aggressive in testing all suspected cases, tracing all contacts, and ensuring proper isolation measures. Second, people need to maintain stricter physical distancing practices and more stringent hygiene behaviours. “It should be clear by now to everyone how important these measures are to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he stressed.

COVID-19 Response in the Middle East

We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day… We cannot allow this virus to take hold of our Region
woman carrying WFP box on her head

In places like Syria, Yemen and Libya, where healthcare infrastructure has been significantly damaged by ongoing conflict, mounting an effective response against COVID-19 poses an extremely difficult challenge.

WHO has received reports of dozens of confirmed cases and two deaths in Syria due to COVID-19. A further spread of the virus could create a disaster for a country wracked by 10 years of war, particularly for internally displaced persons (IDP).  Dangerously cramped conditions in multiple IDP camps, settlements, and places of detention increase the risk of infection.

Five years into the conflict in Yemen, the country’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse and millions of Yemenis lack access to healthcare services. Yemen has become home to diseases such as diphtheria and dengue which can turn into serious health threats for a population that has been chronically malnourished for years. WHO is working with the Yemeni authorities to boost Yemen's COVID-19 testing capabilities and to prevent the spread of the virus to the country.

family receiving WFP food aid

Libya has already detected cases of COVID-19, including at least one death. On Monday, heavy shelling hit Tripoli’s Al Khadra General Hospital, injuring at least one health worker and damaging the fully-functioning medical facility.

“The repeated calls by the United Nations and the international community for a cessation of hostilities have only been met with complete disregard and intensified fighting,” said Yacoub El Hillo, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, adding that the 400-bed hospital was one of the potential COVID-19 assigned health facilities.

The United Nations launched a $2 billion coordinated global humanitarian response plan on 25 March to fight COVID-19 in countries with already existing humanitarian situations.

“At this critical moment, I reiterate my appeal to armed actors around the world to put down their arms,” Mr. Guterres said in an update on his appeal for a global ceasefire. “Together, we must work to build more peaceful, resilient and prosperous societies.”