The Covid-19 pandemic is an extraordinary event, unprecedented in scale and reach, and with previously unimaginable political measures taken, especially in Europe, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic. So far-reaching have some of those political measures been that they have overturned some fundamental assumptions about Western societies. As the virus continues to spread to other countries, those societies, including those in the Middle East, may also find political assumptions rapidly overturned.
The first assumption is that major decisions by Western governments must be preceded by some public discussion. All Western countries are democracies, but the extraordinary and far-reaching political decisions taken over the past few weeks have been taken with barely any public discussion.
Italy’s country-wide lockdown happened overnight. France shut almost the entire public space – restaurants, bars, cinemas – with four hours’ notice. In Denmark, parents were given a day to prepare for all schools closing. This week, the whole of the European Union shut its external borders with less than twelve hours’ notice. It is impossible to think of any modern political decisions of such consequence that have been taken with such little discussion – and indeed with so little dissent.
It is often thought that citizens of the West are, to various degrees, mistrustful of government power and particularly of intrusion and overreach. Yet the pandemic has shown that, in fact, at a moment of crisis, citizens accept wide-ranging government action – and indeed demand even more intrusive government action.
Both Italy and France, two countries with a long history of workers’ strikes and civil disobedience, have mostly responded peacefully to draconian measures. Even in the UK, a country so mistrustful of the state that, almost alone in Europe, it has no national identity cards, the public are calling for more radical, far-reaching government action.
The second assumption is that the networks on which life depends are robust. For most ordinary people, the realization that this is not the case has been perhaps the biggest shock of the crisis. The idea that supermarkets could run out of essential items – food and medicines – has been a recurring theme of social media discussions. Many appeared to believe that there were, somewhere, government warehouses full of essential goods, ready to be used in just such a crisis. No such warehouses exist.
Elsewhere, airlines have been grounded and many of them risk collapse. The financial markets are in turmoil. The same networks that allowed cheap products, cheap food and cheap holidays have been found wanting in a crisis.
The third assumption was that the worst aspects of human nature could be constrained by liberal societies. The crisis has certainly brought out the best in many countries. But racism has returned; small, daily acts of anger are common. Even the United States seeking exclusive use of a coronavirus vaccine being developed by a German company points to an ugly underbelly, now exposed.
Will any of that happen in the Middle East?
With the exception of Iran, the Middle East has so far avoided the huge number of infections seen in Asia and Europe. But that may yet change; so much about this outbreak has been unexpected and has altered almost overnight.
Already some of what is happening in Europe has reached the Middle East. Panic-buying is a feature of several countries now and, as some viral examples of racism towards Asians demonstrate, the region is not immune to that strain of intolerance.
Governments in the region have tried to take a two-pronged approach: prepare for the effects of mass infections, and use fiscal stimulus to mitigate the effects of widespread isolation on the economy. Some have been able to push through decisive actions more rapidly than others.
Egypt has pledged over $6 billion to help its economy; Saudi Arabia has pledged $13 billion, aimed mainly at small and medium-sized businesses. And the UAE is preparing a war-chest of $27 billion, almost as much as the European Union bloc itself. There has thus been swift action even before a crisis has settled in.
If more drastic action is required, would the public be as acquiescent as in Europe? With many Middle East governments ranging from authoritarian to interventionist, the assumption must be that the public would more readily accept it if forceful measures were needed. As the coronavirus spreads, it is overturning political assumptions. It may yet do so in the Middle East. For now, the assumption really worth overturning would be that a region in the midst of so much mass upheaval is not prepared for a mass outbreak.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.