Middle East faces ‘scary’ rise in Covid-19 deaths, expert says

Beyond Iran, the Middle East has been spared a devastating coronavirus outbreak. That could change

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A top Middle East epidemiologist, Dr Ali Mokdad, has warned of sharp rises in coronavirus deaths between now and November, and said more lockdowns may be necessary across the region.

At an online briefing on Monday, Dr Mokdad, director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projected the region’s worst-hit countries would have 160,000 Covid-19 deaths by November 1.

The institute's projections say Iran's death toll would grow from about 13,000 to 62,000 by November, while Egypt's fatalities would rise from about 4,000 to more than 50,000.

The Middle East’s other hot spots are also projected to post significant death tolls by then, with Saudi Arabia’s toll projected to rise from 2,000 to 20,000, Iraq’s to grow from 3,500 to 16,000, and Yemen’s to increase from about 500 to 12,000.

“These projections are scary in many ways but what I want people to know is we can prevent that mortality,” Dr Mokdad, who has worked with the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told an online event of the Atlantic Council think tank.

Lockdowns, social distancing and near-universal mask wearing could slow the pathogen’s spread and reduce death rates, he said.

Widespread use of masks would keep Egypt’s death toll down to 14,000, by his projection.

Dr Mokdad said government lockdowns across the region starting in March had been effective.

But since then, people have been “letting down their guard” and spreading the virus by socialising without masks.

“We have to be ready for another lockdown and we have to prepare the public for that scenario, basically telling people to be ready with two weeks of necessities at home, so that if we have to lock down, we can do it effectively,” Dr Mokdad said.

Yemen’s Covid-19 death toll may increase from about 500 to 12,000 by November, an expert has warned. Wam

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday called for weddings, funerals and other big gatherings to be banned as a sharp rise in infections emerged since officials began relaxing the country’s lockdown in mid-April.

Saudi Arabia has said it will hold only a "very limited" Hajj later this month because of the pandemic, with only those living inside the kingdom allowed to take part.

Dr Mokdad said the Yemeni government had been “overwhelmed” by the virus while the Iran-backed Houthi rebel administration in the north was “not acknowledging there is even a Covid-19 problem”.

He said that policymakers in some countries had been “hiding numbers” of coronavirus infection rates and death tolls when they should have been building trust among their people.

“Be realistic. Level with your public," Dr Mokdad said. "Tell them what you’re dealing with. Tell them what they need to do. They will do it."

No return to 'old normal' for foreseeable future – WHO chief

No return to 'old normal' for foreseeable future – WHO chief

Dr Lina AbiRafeh, executive director of the Arab Institute for Women, a rights organisation, told the session that women and girls across the Middle East were being hit hard by the pandemic.

During lockdowns, women with violent partners had been forced to spend more time in their dangerous homes.

They often struggled to see doctors, while incidents of trafficking, child marriage and female genital mutilation had all shot up.

“We’re talking about something that has amplified all of the problems that we’ve had before, which we just brushed under the table and never adequately addressed,” said Dr AbiRafeh, whose group is part of the Lebanese American University.

As the number of Covid-19 cases grew across the Middle East, the International Monetary Fund on Monday projected a deeper recession for a region that has been hit hard by falling oil prices and reductions in foreign investment.

The IMF now predicts the economies of the Middle East and Central Asia will shrink by 4.7 per cent this year – 2 percentage points lower than its forecast in April.

Dr Mokdad’s coronavirus projections for the Middle East were released amid growing concerns that, while coronavirus was being beaten back in some regions, infection rates continued to rise steadily in others.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation’s Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said strict healthcare rules were being ignored and that “too many countries are headed in the wrong direction”.

"If basics are not followed, the only way this pandemic is going to go – it is going to get worse and worse and worse," Dr Tedros said.

Global infections stand at more than 13 million, with more than half a million deaths.