Middle East faces ‘scary’ uptick in Covid-19 deaths, expert says

Middle East faces ‘scary’ uptick in Covid-19 deaths, expert says
Middle East faces ‘scary’ uptick in Covid-19 deaths, expert says

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - One of the Middle East’s top epidemiologists, Dr Ali Mokdad, has warned of sharp increases in coronavirus deaths between now and November and said more lockdowns may be necessary across the region.

At an online briefing on Monday, Dr Mokdad, director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projected that the region’s worst-hit countries will have seen 160,000 Covid-19 deaths by November 1.

According to the institute’s projections, Iran’s death toll would grow from about 13,000 currently to 62,000 by November, while Egypt’s fatalities would rise from about 4,000 to more than 50,000.

The Middle East’s other hotspots are also projected to see significant death tolls by then, with Saudi Arabia’s toll projected to rise from 2,000 to 20,000, Iraq’s to grow from 3,500 to 16,000, and Yemen’s to increase from about 500 to 12,000.

“These projections are scary in many ways but what I want people to know is we can prevent that mortality,” Dr Mokdad, who previously worked with the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told an online event of the Atlantic Council, a think tank.

Lockdowns, social distancing and near-universal mask-wearing could slow the pathogen’s spread and reduce death rates, added Dr Mokdad. Widespread use of masks would keep Egypt’s death toll down to 14,000, according to his projection.

Dr Mokdad said that government lockdowns across the region beginning in March had been effective. Since then, however, people have been “letting down their guard” and spreading the virus by socialising without masks, he added.

“We have to be ready for another lockdown, and we have to prepare the public for that scenario, basically telling people to be ready with two weeks of necessities at home, so that if we have to lock down, we can do it effectively,” added Dr Mokdad.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday called for weddings, funeral parties and other big gatherings to be banned in the face of a sharp rise in coronavirus infections emerging since officials began relaxing the country’s lockdown in mid-April.

Saudi Arabia has said it will hold only a "very limited" Hajj later this month due to the coronavirus pandemic, with only those living inside the kingdom allowed to take part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

In war-ravaged Yemen, Dr Mokdad said the UN-backed government in the south had been “overwhelmed” by the virus while the Iran-backed Houthi rebel administration in the north was “not acknowledging there is even a Covid-19 problem”.

Dr Mokdad said that policymakers in some countries had been “hiding numbers” of coronavirus infection rates and death tolls when they should instead have been building trust among their populations.

“Be realistic. Level with your public. Tell them what you’re dealing with. Tell them what they need to do. They will do it,” said Dr Mokdad.

Speaking at the same session, Dr Lina AbiRafeh, executive director of the Arab Institute for Women, a rights organisation, said that women and girls across the Middle East were being hit hard by the pandemic.

During lockdowns, women with violent partners had been forced to spend more time in their dangerous homes. Women often struggled to see doctors, while incidents of trafficking, child marriage and female general mutilation had all shot up.

“We’re talking about something that has amplified all of the problems that we’ve had before that we just brushed under the table and never adequately addressed,” said Dr AbiRafeh, whose group is part of the Lebanese American University.

As the number of Covid-19 cases grew across the Middle East, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Monday projected a deeper recession for a region that has been hit hard by falling oil prices and reductions in foreign investment.

The IMF now sees the economies of the Middle East and Central Asia shrinking by 4.7 per cent this year — some 2 percentage points lower than the fund’s forecast in April.

Dr Mokdad’s coronavirus projections for the Middle East were released amid growing concerns that, while coronavirus was being beaten back in some regions, infection rates continued to rise steadily in others.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that strict healthcare rules were being ignored, and that “too many countries are headed in the wrong direction”.

"If basics are not followed, the only way this pandemic is going to go – it is going to get worse and worse and worse," said Mr Ghebreyesus.

Global infections stand at 13 million, with more than half a million deaths.

Updated: July 14, 2020 02:52 AM

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