Gulf-Israel. The Covid-19 Mirror Effect

The world’s highest rates of contamination are to be found in the Gulf monarchies, where the pandemic mainly affects migrant workers. Covid-19 has also hit Israel very hard, mainly in the ultra-orthodox communities. At a time when these countries have undertaken a normalisation of their relations, this convergence of their sanitary situations raises questions about exponential demographic growth and urbanisation, coupled with traditional lifestyles.

Jerusalem, October 1, 2020. — Ultra-Orthodox people have been praying in the open air since the latest measures of confinement involving the closure of synagogues
Menahem Kahana/AFP

By the end of September 2020, Qatar had experienced, since the beginning of the pandemic, 45,000 confirmed contaminations per million inhabitants and Bahrain nearly 42,000. These are the world’s highest ratios, all countries taken together, the double of the USA and Brazil, both considered very high. But those two countries are not very populated: 1.7 million for Bahrain, 2.8 million for Qatar. And the number of fatalities due to the virus remains limited, no doubt because their populations are quite young.1 Kuwait ranks near the top of world statistics and Oman is not far behind, still in terms of the number of contaminations per capita.

In Israel, where the number of contaminations per million inhabitants is higher than that of the United States, a disquieting peak was reached on 23 September: the daily number of confirmed cases made a spectacular jump, four times the ratio of the day before, ten times that of the US. If there is one country where the curves seem abnormal and disconcerting, it is Israel. On 29 September The Times of Israel, in its own style, reached the same conclusion: “Israel’s sky-high infection rate almost 3 times any other in world”.

Between the Gulf monarchies and Israel, we see the same similarities but also differences in the dynamics of the pandemic. The monarchies quickly took drastic measures: closing secondary schools and universities, limitation of international flights and above all the shutdown of places of worship. From the very beginning of the pandemic, religious practices which involve reading aloud, chanting or singing together with body movements, placed the communities in the line of fire and were severely limited.

In Israel, responses were belated but the haredim, the ultra-orthodox, estimated at 10% of the population, have still not complied with the protective guidelines, and constitute a threat to public health and safety. Rabbinic quibbles abound, apace with the spread of the virus. With the second universal lockdown and unprecedented street protests, the singularity of the Israeli situation is becoming apparent. But in the Gulf countries, the dynamics of the crisis remain underestimated. The health systems of Israel and the Gulf countries are comparatively efficient, according to international standards : “In an evaluation published in mid-March by the WHO concerning the degree of preparation for the emergence of Covid-19, countries were rated on a scale of from 1 to 5: 1 meant unpreparedness, 5 a durable capacity. All the members of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) except for Qatar were ranked 4 to 5", but this parameter has not directly affected the causes of contamination or the dynamics of propagation. The observation of these dynamics, interesting in themselves but as yet little analysed, is less revealing of a catastrophe than of social behaviours, collective psychologies and the ways power is exercised.

Before advancing a few conjectures concerning the spread of Covid-19 in Israel and the Gulf monarchies, we should remember that the previous coronavirus epidemic, MERS-COVID (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Related Coronavirus), which far less widespread, first appeared in Saudi Arabia and developed mainly in the Middle East. The first officially recorded case was a 60 years old Saudi male who died in June 2012 after being hospitalised for acute pneumonia and kidney failure. According to the WHO, 80% of recorded cases of MERS-COVID were reported by Saudi Arabia. And the origin of the virus, apparently certified, was an animal vector, the dromedary (a meat eaten in that country). Since peaking in 2014, MERS-COVID has remained endemic, especially in Saudi Arabia. It is less contagious but more dangerous.

Societies cut in half

Israeli society and those of the Gulf monarchies are all deeply divided. The Gulf countries offer a very particular sociology: a major share of their populations, between 50 and 90% is composed of immigrant workers, male and female. These are the first and principal victims of the disease.2

The first epidemiologic study carried out in Oman shows that two thirds of the afflicted are migrant workers. In Israel, the polarisation between the ultra-orthodox and the rest of the society concerns most sectors of social life. While the main Covid-19 clusters are among the haredin, there are others in the recreational districts of Tel Aviv and the Palestinian communities inside Israel. Like the foreign workers in the Gulf monarchies, the rates of poverty and poor health conditions are higher among the haredim than in the rest of society. These inequalities of wealth combined with communal divisions have produced, with the appearance of Covid-19, unprecedented crises the effects of which are still difficult to evaluate.

The Gulf monarchies are aware of these dangers and have taken steps in recent years to reduce the share of migrant workers in the labour force. However, their economies would be paralysed if they were completely deprived of foreign workers. In the Gulf area, most of these migrants live separated from their families whom they left behind in their country of origin (India, Asian or African countries), though some have obtained the right to family reunification. Their welfare coverage and healthcare access are limited and they are constantly accused of cheating. They live in cramped quarters on city outskirts which favours the emergence of pandemic clusters.

Accelerated growth and traditional lifestyles

The Gulf countries, like Israel, are young countries which have experienced exponential economic growth and rapid urbanisation over the last few decades. They are small countries whose populations are often tightly packed into narrow coastal areas due to the hot climate and expansion of the desert. Urban density is very high. Bahrain’s territorial density is among the highest in the world, as are those of Dubai, Sharjah, and certain neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv, especially those where the ultra-orthodox live. The lifestyle and food habits that prevail in these hyper-modern countries are conducive to obesity and cardiovascular disorders, aggravating factors for getting the disease.

In Israel there are countless examples of weddings and religious or mass communitarian ceremonies that have turned into Covid-19 clusters. Anxious as he is to preserve his parliamentary majority, Netyanhou cannot afford to antagonise the ultra-orthodox. During the recent general lockdown, he allowed them to hold collective prayers, undermining public confidence. The whole strategy of sanitary protection was shattered, as was the social consensus. The rapid spread of Covid-19 has gone hand in hand with the repetition of unprecedented street protests. One may wonder whether the pandemic has not contributed to strengthening communitarian bonds and weakening, on the contrary, the unity of States.

Mobility and increasing levels of exchange

The lifestyles and economies of the young countries of the Middle East depend upon exchanges, travels and fast-growing cross-border movements. Over the past twenty years, the Gulf monarchies have expanded their airports, air fleets and trading ports. Israel, which turns its back on most of its neighbours, has also seen an intensification of its international traffic in trade and tourism. Mobility has also been greatly intensified within all these countries and their urban spaces, favouring exchanges and communication of all kinds but also the spread of the disease. In the Gulf countries, the foreign workforce comes and goes between their lodgings and a variety of social spaces, public and private, at the heart of the economy and the cities. The daily movements of a population receiving inadequate health protection put society as a whole at risk, especially wherever immigrants are in a large majority.

Combined with work-related stress in high-tech cities and the very special tension due to the Mid-East wars has not been adequately taken into account. And yet while it affects the morale of the population, and its health, it also increases its resilience capabilities.3

Strategic agreements for a vaccine

In September 2020, in Washington, Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed a security cooperation agreement. Already in May 2020, the press had reported a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf monarchies ‘to fight the pandemic’. At that time, the pandemic may not have been more than a fanciful pretence. But only a few days after the signing of those agreements on US soil, Israeli and Emirati firms concluded ‘strategic commercial accords’ dealing with Covid research. A month earlier, Sinopharm, a major Chinese producer of vaccines, launched an official campaign of tests in the Emirates and Bahrain. Largely confined to migrant workers, this campaign allowed the Gulf States to pride themselves on being privileged testing grounds.

Behind the scenes of those so-called Abraham accords signed in Washington, the Covid-19 threat probably gave rise to talks and exchanges of dossiers dealing not with issues of health or virology but with the world order during and after the pandemic. There is no doubt but what dangers are ahead which require an evaluation in view of their integration into the new regional dynamics. Repercussions of the pandemic are already being felt in matters of State security and modes of government. In Israel, it is now the army that is piloting directly the fight against the pandemic, the government having lost control or simply given up. In the Middle East, more sharply than elsewhere, political questions are being raised about the private and religious spheres. The fact that these are being invaded by unprecedented information systems must be taken seriously, all the more so as what is at stake is keeping one step ahead of the competition in a logic of technological primacy. Here, as in the rest of the world, the pandemic is having a profound effect on the exercise of power and raising new questions.

1By 2020 tie phenomenon was observed in the Gulf monarchies: “The small, neighbouring sheikdoms of Bahrain and Qatar appear to have among world’s highest per capita rates of confirmed coronavirus infections” Jon Gambrell, “Two Mideast countries have highest confirmed virus rates” AP News, 23 July 2020.

2Qatar is a good example: Laith J. Abu Raddad et al.: ‘Characterizing the Qatar advanced-phase SARS-CoV-2 epidemic’

3Rémi Noyon reminds us, following on the research of Jean Delumeau, of the weight of behaviours and collective psychology in such situations: “Pour comprendre la psychologie d’une population travaillée par une épidémie…”, L’Obs, 27 March 2020.