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MENA Countries Reopen Even as Coronavirus Cases Spike

Governments attempt to find right balance between economic, public health

Are governments across the Middle East and North Africa in too much of a rush to reopen their economies before the coronavirus pandemic is completely contained?

In Israel, families are again sitting down at restaurants, and sunbathers are back at the beaches, but a spike in cases has threatened a return to the lockdowns and curfews of the past few months.

On Thursday, the country’s Health Ministry announced over 100 new infections overnight, continuing an upward trend, the total number of cases standing at 18,461, with 300 fatalities.

Acknowledging the increase, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday announced a halt to the easing of restrictions after meeting with the “Corona Cabinet” of top ministers.

But there is mounting pressure around the world to continue reopening economies. It was underscored by a new economic report released Wednesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projecting negative growth for Israel of 6.2%, and a global contraction of at least 6% for the year.

The report warns of “severe and long-lasting” economic damage worldwide even without a second wave of coronavirus infections. With a second wave this winter, the OECD forecasts that Israel’s economy could shrink by 8.3% this year, with global economic output dropping by 7.6%.

“I don’t think we are prioritizing the economy over public health. We are prioritizing public health, understanding that bringing back the economy is very important for public health,” Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line.

Davidovitch believes that many of the new cases in Israel can be attributed to an increase in testing, including the targeted testing of clusters, and that if you remove the clusters, such as one centered around a high school in Jerusalem, the overall number goes down.

“The number that is now more relevant is the number of severe cases, especially [people on] ventilators and deaths, and this is quite stable, so this is a good sign,” Davidovitch said.

What could lead to a high mortality rate, he cautioned, is a high rate of unemployment because of the stress of being out of work. He added that the rise in cases is manageable and the gradual reopening of the economy should continue.

Arab Gulf countries have also seen a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks as economic restrictions were being lifted.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday announced 38 new coronavirus-related deaths and 3,733 new infections, bringing the total number of fatalities in the kingdom to 857, and the overall case count to 116,021, according to Thursday’s update from the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker.

“Gulf Arab governments are trying to strike the right balance between encouraging a functioning economy and ensuring public safety. This is a significant challenge given the number of variables in the equation,” Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line.

Mogielnicki notes the importance of getting Gulf economies back on track after being battered by COVID-19 emergency measures and low oil prices.

The Conference Board Gulf Center for Economics and Business Research quarterly update predicts that the GDP of Gulf countries could contract by 5.9% in 2020 compared to 2019.

“It is not easy to jumpstart the levers of economic activity once they have been completely turned off,” Mogielnicki warned. “Government officials want to keep the economic engines warm amid the uncertainty.”

The spike in cases, he maintains, offers an opportunity for policy-makers in the Gulf region to assess what is and isn’t working, and to make adjustments in order to boost preparedness for the next wave of infections.

A similar scenario is playing out in Israel.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu ordered stepped-up enforcement of social distancing measures, including the wearing of masks, a policy Davidovitch agrees with.

“I think that the main issue is how to create this corona routine where we can live with the corona, still using masks [and] hygiene…,” Davidovitch said, “[and] opening different sectors of the economy but in a more sophisticated way.”