Five years have passed since the world adopted a set of global frameworks and commitments towards achieving sustainable development, reducing disaster risk, protecting lives and livelihoods, and mitigating impacts of climate change and associated risks. In 2015, the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (United Nations 2015b), a framework that explicitly addresses human health and calls for risk-management measures to include epidemics and pandemics among biological risks. Later, in 2015, the United Nations convened a global summit that adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations 2015a), where goal number three is dedicated to good health and wellbeing, focusing on early warning, risk reduction, and effective management of health risks at the national and global levels. Also in 2015, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2015) was adopted reflecting the recognition of scientific warnings of the effect of climate change on the intensity and frequency of disasters associated with natural hazards and exacerbated health risks, including epidemics.
In 2015, the world came together as governments, non-governmental entities, scientific institutions, and academia, private sector, and global citizens to create a momentum for action to reduce disaster risk, thus reducing mortalities from disasters and safeguarding sustainable development efforts. A global sense of hopefulness ensued, looking at these commitments as milestones towards building more resilient societies through a holistic approach to address the multiple risks associated with natural, technological, environmental, and biological hazards. Yet, five years later, it seems the world has been caught off guard with the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, exposing countries’ abilities for early warning, preparedness, and disaster management. This pandemic turned out to be a real test of the ability of ruling regimes to manage this crisis and reduce its economic and social effects.
Arab countries are not immune to this risk which invaded a region (and many of its countries) already embroiled in many challenges and disasters, including armed conflicts, occupied territories, protracted refugee crises, regime changes, and economic crises. No country in the region seemed to have used early-warning mechanisms and preparedness plans upon the news of the virus being confirmed in China in November 2019. This lack of action, or rather inaction, has been the norm across the globe up until death cases started to be confirmed in late January outside China.
By mid-February, cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the region, and responses to the emerging crisis varied according to resources availability, on the one hand, and according to governments weighing the risks of lockdown, on the other. At the regional level, the Arab Coordination Mechanism for Disaster Risk Reduction was not activated and the only regional action was the convening of three meetings of the Arab Health Ministers Council under the umbrella of the League of Arab States. Regionally, the mortality rate is around 2.1%, which is much lower than the global rate of 6.9%. However, this rate increases to more than 12% in some Arab states and drops to lower than 0.08% in others (World Health Organization (WHO) 2020). Mortality rate is an indicator of the state’s ability to test, monitor, and respond effectively, which is also linked to the financial and human resources reflected in an effective and efficient health system. Moreover, countries that have acted swiftly and strictly have been able to keep the number of deaths below twenty-five cases, as in Jordan and Lebanon (at the time of writing), while countries that have hesitated in declaring emergency and lockdown measures in an attempt to minimize economic or political risks have had hundreds of deaths so far.
For more than a decade, the United Nations system has worked closely with Arab countries to strengthen disaster coordination mechanisms, early-warning systems, risk-analysis tools, emergency, and response strategies towards the institutionalization of comprehensive approaches to disaster risk reduction. However, the response to COVID-19 in the region reveals that one country only, Lebanon, has used the global standardized disaster loss database to monitor and analyze disaster losses and to publish disaggregated data publicly. National coordination mechanisms are established in most Arab states; however, this pandemic is considered primarily a health crisis with response coordination by ministries of health under the supervision of the head of government or head of state.
The economic and social impacts of this pandemic on the Arab region will be long felt regardless of the effective response to COVID-19. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) estimates economic losses in the Arab region will exceed US$42 billion, with more than 1.7 million people losing their jobs and the number of poor people reaching 101.4 million Arab citizens, one-quarter of the region’s population, by the end of 2020 (UN-ESCWA 2020). Undoubtedly, the whole world is stepping into global economic recession, but the severity will be felt more by fragile and war-torn states. The repercussions of the current crisis in the region will be catastrophic on marginalized and vulnerable groups such as refugees, slum residents, children, women, the elderly, and people under occupation or in conflict zones. Therefore, the losses of COVID-19 should not be counted only by the numbers of fatalities. Plans to mitigate the negative impacts of this pandemic should be multisectoral, comprehensive, and sustainable within an overall national framework for disaster risk reduction.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the fragility of some governments and the strength of others, and it has certainly exposed the state’s role in protecting its citizens and brought to the forefront issues of governance and citizenship. Trust between authorities and the people is essential to enforce mutual commitment and a sense of responsibility that contributes to effective risk management and loss reduction. The scale of the crisis has also transformed the perception of health from being an individual priority to a collective responsibility that affects and is affected by politics, the economy, the environment, social affairs, and culture.
One can already observe change in Arab societies and governments, and this should be developed and sustained. At the individual level, a higher sense of responsibility is developing coupled with a boldness in holding the state responsible for the protection of the lives and provision of a functioning and responsive health system. On the government’s side, concerted efforts are made to gain the trust and support of the people, with continuous improvement of crisis management performance and public engagement. However, public political commitment to protect citizens’ lives and livelihoods cannot stand alone. It is important to secure a strong political will with an effective national framework for disaster risk reduction, guided by accountability and transparency and supported by public and private investments. It is critical that gaps, failures, and weaknesses of the disaster risk-reduction strategies be assessed at the local, national, and regional levels. Existing resources and mechanisms should be reviewed and multisectoral vulnerabilities evaluated.
In today’s world, investments in scientific research and data for policy planning and risk analysis should be prioritized. Arab countries continue to marginalize funding for scientific research and development, with the gross domestic product (GDP) percentage of such spending in Arab countries ranging from 0.73% for Morocco to 0.04% for Bahrain, while it reaches 3.16% in Sweden, 2.74% in the United States, 2.10% in China, and 1.18% in Russia (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2015). On the other hand, military expenditures deplete development resources in the region, including those for a resilient health system that is indispensable in both war and peace. According to data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (2019), five Arab countries were among the top ten countries in the world with the highest military burden in 2018, and Arab countries’ arms imports increased by 87% between 2014 and 2018 compared with the preceding five years.
Arab governments have committed to regional and international strategies for disaster risk reduction and they know the recipe for resilience and risk reduction. The COVID-19 global pandemic is a reminder that effective disaster risk reduction is key to sustaining development gains and protecting lives and livelihoods. Good governance, accurate and validated data, and transparent communication are key ingredients for resilience-building. Solidarity actions rolled out during this crisis should be sustained and nurtured, whether within the state or between states globally. Developing and enhancing social safety nets is essential, as well as extending support and protection to refugees. Fostering a culture of resilience should be the priority of everyone: it can be achieved through enhanced awareness and knowledge of the risks and a strengthened sense of shared responsibility to mitigate, prepare, and respond to these risks. Resilience is not luxury but a way of life.