Probably not even Nassim Nicholas Taleb in person could have imagined a better example of a black swan. COVID-19 is “the non-predictable” event par excellence, with non-predictable developments and non-predictable outcomes. Even people like us, who for a living formulate everyday analyses and forecasts about present and future events, cannot even begin to outline credible hypotheses about the very communities we live in. Hence, any attempt to formulate future scenarios for an entire region like the Middle East – which tends to be quite unpredictable even in normal times – would be scarcely credible.
However, at least three considerations can be made looking at the (very) little that we know about the current situation and the trends that we had seen developing over the months preceding the pandemic’s outbreak. To do that it is also useful to look at the lessons coming from other regions currently dealing with the virus.
In fact, in Europe, and especially in Italy, we are starting to have a clear idea of what impact COVID-19 can have on populations and healthcare infrastructures. It is noteworthy, for example, that most contagions in Italy occurred in the northern region of Lombardy, by far the country’s richest. Last year, Lombardy’s healthcare system scored 9.9 out of 10 in the OECD healthcare ranking, positioning itself as one of the most efficient worldwide. Not at all impressed by such a score, COVID-19 overwhelmed Lombardy’s hospitals in less than two weeks.
Looking elsewhere, Germany has managed for weeks to keep the pandemic’s death rate remarkably low thanks to a massive test campaign – half a million tests per week. However, now that the contagion has become widespread, even Germany’s death rate has begun to look like those of the other European countries.
These examples help give a credible picture of the kind of pressure healthcare systems all over the world may face rather soon and what sort of impact the pandemic may have on countries possessing few and underfunded hospital networks or that cannot afford to purchase millions of tests for their citizens. Such a situation is even more worrisome if one looks at the limited measures introduced in several MENA countries to contain the contagion, which usually entail only limited and/or scarcely enforced lockdowns, such as night curfews. It is worth remembering that these days Lombardy’s hospitals are still operating at overcapacity despite more than two weeks of extremely severe lockdown, which brought the region’s notoriously smoggy sky (one of Europe’s most polluted) back to its XIX century pollution levels.
Of course, compared to Europe MENA countries enjoy also some advantages. For instance, a warmer climate – which, some say, may be of help against coronavirus (although no conclusive scientific proof has been provided yet) – and a significantly younger population, which should be able to withstand the virus’s symptoms more easily than Europe’s elderly. However, it is not difficult to imagine that the impact of COVID-19 will be dire, probably a lot direr than what even the region’s most forward-looking leaders have imagined so far.
This brings us to a second important point: such dire consequences will not impact a region that was previously in good political and socioeconomic health. Saying that the economic consequences of the pandemic may bring most MENA countries to the brink of collapse would be a gross underestimation of the situation. In fact, numerous MENA countries were ALREADY on the brink of collapse long before a Chinese pangolin’s virus decided to mutate into something affecting humans. Lebanon, for instance, declared default on its debt a few days before the country’s first contagion case was officially announced. Furthermore, countries such as Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq had already seen months (if not entire years) of instability and social mobilization before COVID-19’s arrival. If the inception of the COVID-19 crisis, on the one hand, may spare local governments from facing more demonstrations in the next months, on the other it may contribute to worsening the very socioeconomic challenges that caused such protests in the first place. Unequal access to healthcare, lack of welfare safety nets for these countries’ millions of informal workers (who, unlike their richer fellow citizens, will be likely forced to keep working to support their families at their health’s risk), and lack of budgetary space for fiscal stimuli to buffer the crisis’ economic impact can only lead to increased grievances and anger ready to explode once social distancing will no longer be a necessity.
But, in the meantime, social distancing IS a necessity, and this leads to a third crucial element likely to be part of the post-COVID-19 scenario: the relative freedom of action that governments in the region are going to enjoy over the next months, which may be crucial to ensuring their survival. As we have already seen in numerous regions around the world – including Europe, with the Hungarian case – the coronavirus crisis is being used by several leaderships as the perfect excuse to introduce police-state-style measures that are unlikely to be lifted once the crisis is over. The Middle East has all the characteristics – increasingly rebellious populations, economic decline, almost no reform-minded leaders (to use a euphemism) – to be the perfect laboratory for these kinds of policies. In Egypt, Al-Sisi’s regime has already shown during the first weeks of the pandemic that it is more interested in cracking down on journalists reporting on it than in containing the contagion. In Algeria, the new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, introduced new legislation to manage the virus crisis which, among other things, bans all public protests. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has used the current crisis to postpone his corruption trial and block any attempt to end his premiership.
In sum, increased popular mistrust and discontent, economic ruin, and expanded securitization of local societies are the three elements most likely to compose the post-COVID-19 scenario for the Middle East. A region that in a year from now is likely to look like one of those unexploded bombs from old wars that sometimes people find around the world. People expect them to explode at some point and thus isolate and guard them to try to defuse their detonation devices. However, many times, despite all efforts to prevent it, they explode anyway during the operation, causing even more harm than if they had just been left underground. Analogously, some political and socioeconomic bombs, especially if left underground simmering for months, may become simply impossible to defuse, despite local regimes’ early preparations to contain them.