War and pestilence have combined to create disaster throughout history, and as the coronavirus slowly begins to penetrate the Middle East, the human and political consequences could be devastating.
The virus has already arrived in the region. Israel – a country with a sophisticated Western-style health system and a significant capacity to mobilise resources – is already beginning to struggle with the potential consequences of the pandemic.
It is facing the self-same problems as experienced in Western Europe and the United States. So too is Iran, which has been hit even harder. It has a rapidly rising death toll, with few analysts believing the official mortality figures.
However, the Middle East has some specific problems that may exacerbate the crisis. Ways of life governed by religion, for example, play a significant part in the lives of many countries’ citizens.
Such communities may often be insular and slow to change their practices.
It is perhaps no accident that in Israel, its ultra-Orthodox Haredi community has been slow to adopt the recommended social distancing measures and has suffered disproportionately from the virus. Shia pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria have tested positive for Covid-19, suggesting that such movements risk spreading the disease.
This is of course an economic crisis as much as a medical calamity. The oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has caused plummeting oil prices, worsening the economic underpinning of much of the region. Middle Eastern governments by and large do not have the resources for huge public investment to support wages and ailing businesses.
But above all else, it is ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the huge displaced and refugee populations that the fighting causes, that represent the region’s biggest problem as it confronts the spreading pandemic.
Syria, Libya and Yemen are in large part failed states with limited resources and medical infrastructure. Indeed in rebel areas in Syria, hospitals and other medical facilities have come under direct attack from the regime and its Russian allies.
Not surprisingly then, aid organisations are making urgent calls for assistance and calling for a concerted international response.