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By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

The COVID-19 virus pandemic has changed the world. But interestingly, it has changed different parts of the world in very similar ways.

Many nations have fought the spread of the virus by taking similar actions – requiring face masks, social distancing, and banning large gatherings – and often the results have been similar too. And even the often-troublesome Middle East will probably be changed in dramatic ways once the pandemic is over.

The effects of COVID-19 have been felt in the Middle East, even in places that seem to be beyond the reach of worldly things. No better example can be found than the Hajj, a once in a lifetime obligation for all Moslems who are physically and financially able to make it.

Saudi Arabia Limited Hajj Pilgrims to Just 1,000 This Year

This annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, brings millions of worshippers to Saudi Arabia. The Hajj includes a visit to Masjid al-Haram at the heart of Mecca. Masjid al-Haram, also known as the Great Mosque of Mecca, houses the Kaaba, a cube-like structure that contains a black rock known as al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad, which, according to Islamic tradition, dates back to the time of Adam and Eve.

In a normal year, tens of thousands of people would be in the compound of the mosque together. The pressure is enormous and even outside the mosque, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would be living in tents in the compounds built by the Saudi government. This year, however, Saudi Arabia allowed only 1,000 pilgrims to come and perform this ritual.

The ministry charged with organizing the yearly pilgrimage announced earlier in the year that the Hajj would take place “with a limited number of pilgrims from all nationalities residing in Saudi Arabia only, who are willing to perform Hajj. This decision is taken to ensure [the] Hajj is safely performed while committing to all preventive measures to protect Muslims and adhere strictly to the teachings of Islam in preserving our health and safety.”

Thus, instead of pictures of tens of thousands of people at the holy site, this year viewers saw only those 1,000 faithful dutifully circling the Kaaba while standing six feet apart and wearing face masks.

This was not the only change brought about by COVID-19. In Jordan, for example, the government took severe steps to curb the spread of the virus. Besides mandatory mask wearing and nightly curfews, there were closures of businesses that wreaked havoc on the economy.

Iran’s Steps to Deal with the Pandemic Added to Instability of Its Fragile Political Situation

In Iran, the pandemic added to the instability of the fragile political situation of the clerical regime. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the pandemic is severe there. The BBC’s Persian language service said, “The regime published partial numbers in an attempt to hide the true extent of its failure dealing with the pandemic.”

In reality, things are much worse; the Tehran regime has kept the real extent of the tragedy under wraps. The BBC said the government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died from COVID-19 symptoms as of July 20, versus the 14,405 deaths reported by its health ministry. The number of people known to be infected is also almost double the official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827.

This makes Iran the hardest-hit country in the Middle East and adds to the stress the regime feels in light of the crippled economy and the continuing U.S. sanctions.

Other regional powers have handled things somewhat differently. In Egypt, for example, the effects of the pandemic have not been as severe as elsewhere in the region. As of December 16, there were 123,153 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6,990 deaths, the Ministry of Health and Population reported.

In Israel, the graph of the pandemic has gone up and down. The Israeli government took drastic measures in the early months to curb the spread, but when the closures were relaxed the numbers spiked. That brought about another cycle of closures. Writing in Haaretz, Meirav Arlosoroff said, “Nine months since the start of the pandemic, Israel is still wasting its time on useless measures.”

Referring to the local lockdowns in Arab communities, Arlosoroff added: “These lockdowns are a charade. The police, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, close off access in and out of these communities while letting through essential workers. Schools in these communities are also closed, with the students paying the price over and over. Other than creating traffic problems, the lockdowns accomplish almost nothing.”

As of December 17, the Worldometer reported Israel had 366,612 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 3,040 deaths. Just as in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic has been part of the political discourse.

And just like the U.S., the Israeli administration’s policies have provoked heated debates, coronavirus doubters and differing schools of thought among the nation’s medical professionals. There is chance that the Netanyahu government will institute another closure in the very near future, the third since the beginning of the pandemic.

Israel’s Development of a One-Dose Vaccine Could Be Distributed as Early as Next Summer

In Israel, too, there is an ongoing process of developing a vaccine. Unlike the vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer, this one would require only one dose.

Prof. Shmuel Shapira, who is leading the development of the vaccine at the Biological Institute in Nes-Tziona, told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) Science and Technology Committee that the third and final phase of testing in some 30,000 people is expected to begin in April. Distribution of the vaccine could start as early as next summer. He added that three million doses were produced and 12 million more doses will be produced in the coming months.

But outgoing Health Ministry Deputy Director Prof. Itamar Grotto, one of the leaders in the battle against COVID-19, told Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most popular newspaper, that a return to normalcy can be expected in late February, a year after all of this started.

It is difficult to estimate what the effects of the pandemic will be on the political and economic future of the Middle East. There are so many open questions in the region, just as there are in Europe and North America. But I think we can all agree the pandemic will usher a new era with outcomes that are unforeseen.