The Middle East needs to think of Covid-19 as a regional problem

The pandemic cannot be tackled on a country-by-country basis

With Covid-19 cases and Delta variant infections surging across the world, the 410 million people who live in the Mena region have not been spared.

Despite over 165m vaccine doses having been administered across the region, reported cases have surpassed the 13m mark. The Delta variant has been detected in 15 Mena countries as of late July, with drastic rises recorded in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Compared to the previous month, the region witnessed a 67 per cent increase in cases and a 24 per cent surge in deaths, translating to a weekly average of 363,000 new cases and 4,300 deaths. Even the UAE, which launched one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, has been grappling with rising Delta variant cases.

These concerning trends have left many countries scrambling to regain control over growing infection rates while simultaneously pushing to secure and administer Covid-19 vaccines as quickly as possible. In Tunisia, for example, a sharp rise in cases and deaths has pushed the healthcare system close to collapse. As alerts of oxygen shortages resounded from hospitals around the country, the number of cases and deaths climbed to unprecedented levels, giving Tunisia the number one slot for Covid-19 mortality in the region.

As the situation has continued to deteriorate, surpassing 20,000 reported deaths, countries from across the region have intervened in what is a remarkable movement of solidarity. From Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Algeria and the UAE, shipments of vaccines and medical aid have poured in quickly. Support has also arrived from outside the region, including from Italy, Turkey, China, Mauritania and the World Bank, which approved millions of dollars to support the Covid-19 response. The USA and France have also contributed two million jabs via the Covax facility.

These acts of extraordinary solidarity are crucial to ending the pandemic, especially in countries that do not have the resources to fight it. Thanks to these collective efforts, Tunisia is finally beginning to overcome this latest surge in Covid-19 cases. Last week, it managed to vaccinate more than 500,000 people in just one day and brought its oxygen needs to a level that can meet its supply. While we should celebrate this unprecedented wave of support, we must also realise that we cannot continue to manage the regional and global Covid-19 crises on a country-by-country basis.

A screenshot of video showing the production of Hayat-Vax in the Kizad, UAE. Courtesy G42

In addition to reinforcing regional solidarity, we must also continue to call for bolder commitments from world leaders and global institutions to deliver more funds urgently, boost dose sharing to address shortages in the short-term emergency phase and, more sustainably, address vaccine-manufacturing efforts and ensure equitable access to vaccines. While Covax has made great strides in delivering vaccines around the world, many populations across the region still do not have access to these life-saving measures. As of the end of July, a mere 5.5 per cent of the region’s population had been fully vaccinated.

Despite this gloomy portrait, discussions around local vaccine production, and therefore increased local access, continue to progress as potential ways to mitigate the ongoing waves of infection. The UAE is already producing the Sinopharm vaccine locally and has supplied over 100m doses around the world, as well as being at the forefront for approving highly effective treatments for the disease. As the first country in the Arab world to produce the Sinopharm vaccine through Hayat-Vax, a joint collaboration between Sinopharm CNBG and Abu Dhabi’s G42 Healthcare, the UAE is a leader in increasing vaccine manufacturing to meet growing demand.

Morocco also recently signed a major deal to secure local production of the Sinopharm vaccine, and Egypt is playing a leading role in locally manufacturing vaccines as it finalises plans to produce Sinovac and Sputnik. Subject to clinical trials, Egypt is also on track to produce a locally developed vaccine by the end of 2022. The World Health Organisation’s announcement of setting up an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine hub in South Africa in June has also sparked hope of increased local production.

While the pandemic continues to evolve, it has become increasingly apparent that waves of Covid-19 will continue for far longer than we had originally expected. Government leaders and global institutions must demonstrate stronger support to Covax, and commit to bolder action now for the region, and the world, to protect the health and well-being of all populations.

There has never been a more urgent need to expand collective action and continue strengthening regional solidarity. The experience of the Mena region over the past few weeks provides a positive example of the value of regional solidarity. We must replicate this collective response across the globe and ensure that all countries and all communities have the vaccines, diagnostics, treatments and health systems needed to respond to Covid-19. Where there is strong collaboration, there are better outcomes for all. Where there is collective effort, there is lasting progress. We must therefore continue pushing for vaccine equity and replicate these unified acts of solidarity now.

Published: August 16th 2021, 6:00 AM
Simon Bland

Simon Bland

Simon Bland is chief executive of the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE), a global health institute based in Abu Dhabi