A Spiraling Pandemic Highlights Injustice in the Middle East

For months, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on nearly every nation in the world, exacerbating preexisting challenges and creating new ones. Although some countries have fared better than others, none have wholly escaped the deadly virus. Although the situation seemed to be leveling off, cases have skyrocketed in recent months

While the rallying cry, “We’re all in this together,” heard throughout the US and other countries may have provided a level of solidarity, reality suggests that it’s a false narrative. COVID-19 has laid bare the disparities in many countries, disproportionately impacting impoverished and minority communities. The Middle East is no exception.

Health services for COVID-19 in the Middle East have been allocated to the elite, the affluent, and society’s politically connected sectors. Except for the wealthy minority, who can afford to stay home, most residents must work. Stay-at-home orders and the closures of many businesses have created a situation that finds many people with no way to earn a living. They are without medicine or food, and many die without any testing, medical care, or even a hospital visit.

Communities at Risk

The communities at risk from COVID-19 are spread across the entire region. Like many minority and underprivileged communities in the US, the most vulnerable Middle Eastern communities lack job security and health insurance and are rapidly running out of food. Like their American counterparts, people living in these communities will die from COVID-19 at far higher numbers than the rest of the population. The communities include:

  • Millions of people living in refugee camps and internally displaced persons, especially in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Yemen, Libya, and Turkey
  • Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian living in Israel and the highly densely populated Gaza Strip
  • Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers living in very crowded and unsanitary slums and poor neighborhoods throughout the Gulf, constituting 25 to 50 percent of the total population
  • Tightly-knit ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, especially in the Jerusalem suburbs of Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim
  • Millions of war victims in Syria and the Saudi-run war in Yemen
  • Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians living in poor, unsanitary, overcrowded areas, especially in the area of the so-called city of the dead and garbage areas that lack running water or sewers
  • Millions of ethnic and sectarian communities are viewed as a threat to existing regimes, including the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere, the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, the stateless Bedouins in Kuwait, and the Bedouins in “unrecognized” towns and villages in southern Israel.

Gaza and the West Bank

Health officials reported that cases of COVID-19 are surging in Gaza. The tiny, densely populated Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave, home to two million people, has officially registered more than 25,000 infections. Recent reports indicate that Gaza is out of coronavirus test kits and lacks ventilators, PPE, and medicine.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the PA announced it would reimpose a week-long lockdown in four out of 11 provinces, beginning December 10 for seven days. The lock-down will shutter all commercial and service activities, except for pharmacies, bakeries, supermarkets, and grocery stores.

The Palestinian health ministry has recorded more than 74,160 COVID-19 cases, including nearly 700 deaths, in the West Bank.

Additional factors affecting the economy and delivery of health and other essential services are marked by a shortage of clean water (it’s unavailable for 95 percent of the population), and power shortages, which given the large population, density, and inability to flee, trap people in a dire situation. The limited resources available to the Palestinian governing authority create an acute shortage of medical supplies and equipment essential for combating a pandemic. 

Broad but less-severe restrictions apply to the movement of more than 2.5 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Permits are required to enter Israel, parts of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and areas taken over by settlements or the Israeli military. Even when permits have been obtained, Palestinians must navigate checkpoints and roadblocks, costly in terms of time and health outcomes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently criticized Israel for its violations of health rights in the Palestinian territories and the occupied Golan Heights during the coronavirus pandemic. The condemnation cited Israel for Palestinians’ “mental health and psychosocial problems “due to the self-declared Jewish state’s” discriminatory planning policies and practices towards Palestinians” in Area C of the occupied West Bank, which is under the Israeli military and administrative jurisdiction.

Addressing the Crisis

As the number of cases continues to grow in the middle east, many countries are taking steps to mitigate the situation with strict lock-down mandates and expanding hospitalization options. There’s also an increased effort to secure equipment for healthcare staff. The Palestinian Authority recently announced that it would reinstate ties with Israel to combat the pandemic. 

Organizations such as the Center for Global policy continue to encourage the adoption of health diplomacy as a valuable response to control the spread of COVID-19.

When governments and people should be working together to manage a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, it’s incomprehensible and unconscionable that those in power refuse to relax existing politically-driven mandates that prevent people from receiving healthcare and accessing food and water.

Please stand with Churches for Middle East Peace in contacting your legislators and asking them to ensure US humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians can resume immediately, especially to help meet the needs created by the pandemic.