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The COVID-19 pandemic and health systems in the Middle East — an opportunity for a new start?

I read with some dismay a week, the self-congratulatory triumphalism of a Saudi commentator extolling his nation’s pandemic response when gloating in the hardship and failures of a number of its neighbors and regional competitions. The virus, naturally, remains impartial into the squabbles of regional authorities or even people of the biggest global power-brokers. By way of instance, Mike Pence, the US vice-president, was occupied offering conspiracy theories before this week by indicating China understood about a widespread epidemic as early as November 2019. This, obviously, might have only been a weak attempt to divert from the United States’ policy collapse, since the pandemic strikes across America fuelled with a disjointed and poorly coordinated federal reaction.

Saudi Arabia and associate states from the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) will be better served by building on the commendable achievement and lessons learned in their own MERS-CoV outbreak response efforts and focusing on these areas of the health systems and broader societies which are still weak and may be further enhanced. The COVID-19 pandemic — as it rages across all of our boundaries – functions as a worldwide drop button, a landmark moment in history for many nations to represent our existing state of events and think about where they are moving and what they could do better. It is a chance to produce systemic wholesale developments.

For the Saudis and their GCC sisters and brothers, among the most glaring systemic flaws in their societies would be that the unconscionable disparity in employment and legal rights, and access to social and health services, between their nationals and the migrant labor workforce which keeps their nations running and protected (a workforce which far outnumbers nationals throughout the GCC). Presently under lockdown in several configurations, large amounts of those foreign workers – frequently around subsistence incomes – are living on charity handouts and the edge of bulk COVID-19 outbreaks within their cramped labor camps. While food and beverage distribution was generally quite good throughout the present crisis, according to the substantial service being provided from the Dubai government across the densely populated quarantine zone of Deira, as an instance, authorities in the GCC are less effective in supplying decent employee protections and proper housing and health care for migrant laborers — crucial needs throughout a full-scale outbreak.

Physiologically, national or migrant, both are both vulnerable to this virus — but if only 1 group has some substantive access to the societal protections and high-quality healthcare available by the State, then any form of pandemic preparedness is rapidly overwhelmed and becomes unsustainable for everybody. The 2 agencies stay constant irritants into the entire Middle East area over its human rights documents and have been highlighting the scant regard being paid to migrant laborers from the hurry to put in position pandemic containment steps, such as suspension of non-essential company and severe travel restrictions.

If a step of a society’s prestige is the way it cares for its weakest and most exposed, then the GCC as a whole drops short, given the massive oil riches and assets at its disposal. The exceptionally spiraling outbreak unfolding across the USA, also, is in no small role right on account of the substantial inequalities and changeable access to health providers throughout the nation — one in which over 30 million individuals either don’t have any health insurance or are under-insured and that subsequently delay obtaining health from dread of their related monetary costs, thus putting both themselves and people they’re vulnerable to in risk and additional driving transmission.

Universal health care and social welfare for all residents irrespective of citizenship status ought to be an integral priority for the GCC moving forward and should be a fundamental pillar for any pandemic preparation plan. It would also be in keeping with the values and customs of an avowedly spiritual area.

Maybe now’s the time for all those principles to be re-established in the area and applied to most residents — nationals and migrants — particularly as they pertain to legal issues about access to health care, social and employment protections.

While the Saudis and their GCC buddies have undoubtedly moved quickly and decisively throughout the pandemic – restricting pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, suspending flights and earning social distancing measures, etc – there are a few apparent extra areas for progress in the two creating pandemic preparedness and response capacities within the long run. Primarily, the broader Middle East region has a youthful, lively and well-educated childhood, an ample workforce to fuel the self-sufficiency required to induce pandemic preparedness.

Second, there’s no explanation as to diagnostics, vaccine and therapeutics development and its following fabrication can’t occur within the area itself. Entrepreneurship initiatives such as Tamkeen in Bahrain must be installed throughout the area and enlarged. The over-reliance on short term outside specialists and consultancy teams parachuted into advice on what, from pandemic strategies to lab testing and services kits, means that sustainable capabilities are seldom developed and what on offer is from classes with no long-term pursuits in the area beyond a transactional monetary institution.

By way of instance, regardless of the substantial quantities of cases throughout the area as a whole, there are quite limited high containment lab facilities set up to securely store COVID-19 individual samples or set up biobanks to execute the advanced and mandatory public health and clinical study which could advise locally tailored responses. Research and Innovation are crucial boards of pandemic preparedness and on the two counts that the area performs badly. It seems a lot of the investment which has occurred has centered around purchasing European soccer clubs and growing oversized retail stores to market amusement and overpriced luxury products to some wealthy, progressively unproductive, elite.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the area desperately wants a rapprochement between its squabbling regional forces, one predicated on a shared geographic area and shared values. The GCC should reevaluate the big challenges that Iran and Turkey have had to confront in this outbreak. Turkey, the GCC’s other favorite”frenemy,” is host to 4 million Syrian Arab refugees along with also an unstable southern boundary — a massive added complexity to need to manage in the middle of an evolving outbreak.

It’s time for the GCC to extend a hand of solidarity and utilize this common catastrophe as a chance to construct bridges and create a regional crisis and pandemic response capability. Possibly the starting point for this might be encouraging the present responses in badly-affected neighboring states by delivering supplies and expertise where necessary, then in the longer term, creating a well-resourced regional Centre for Disease Control — a meritocratic establishment drawing experience from throughout the area. One which has the power to construct and maintain a regional public health workforce in every area of experience, organize diagnostics, vaccination and therapy plans (both the development and fabrication of those essential medical countermeasures) and research the essential research and innovation to make sure the area gets self-explanatory and self-reliant. It’s at the point the area can stand and claim to be making valuable contributions to international pandemic preparedness and response.