By now, COVID-19 has spread around the world, to every continent where human beings live. Daily life has been upended, and tens of thousands have died, with millions more at risk. This is in addition to the horrific problems that poor and working class people are being made to suffer globally due to an unstable world.
In the Middle East, foreign domination, war, and exploitation were already impacting people’s lives in horrible ways. Now the COVID-19 crisis has been added to the mix, creating a lethal cocktail.
These are some of the worst situations on the Arabian Peninsula, waiting to explode.
Gaza – A Prison Camp Primed for Infection
Palestine is the region of the Middle East on which the state of Israel was founded in 1948. Since that time, Israel has militarily and economically displaced the original inhabitants, the Palestinian people. Today there are more than four million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Gaza, in particular, is singled out for ruthless isolation and violence by the Israeli state in normal times. Now Gaza is in particular danger from COVID-19. In Gaza, due to an economic blockade by Israel, 50 percent of hospitals do not have adequate supplies. Hospital equipment is denied entry into Gaza because it can supposedly be used for military purposes. Israel is actively denying the importation of ventilators. People are denied entry and exit, so there is no hope for assistance or escape. Gazan hospitals have no more than 2,000 beds to serve two million people. In addition, Gaza does not have clean water or electricity. Sewage contamination is a regular problem in the water supply. While there have only been 13 cases so far, Gaza is a COVID-19 crisis waiting to happen.
Since 2011, Syria has been ripped apart by a war which began as the regime tried to drown Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in blood. In March 2011, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians came out into the streets to demand change, the Syrian military launched its attacks, beginning almost a decade of bloodshed. Since 2011, the war has seen military forces from the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and other countries intervene, making Syria’s civil war much more of a global conflict between the big imperialist powers. Particularly the U.S. and Russia, as well as regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have used the war in Syria to extend their dominance, not just in that country but in the whole Middle East. Already more than half of Syria’s 22 million people have fled their homes and four hundred thousand or more people have been killed in the violence.
Today, there are only a handful of COVID-19 cases in Syria, but the anticipated spread of the disease will be a catastrophe. At this time, there are seven million Syrians displaced by war, and living in refugee camps within the country, and another 4-5 million in surrounding countries and overseas. The majority of refugees are concentrated in the Northwest of Syria, on Turkey’s borders. The war, over the course of nine years, has destroyed a health care system which used to be one of the region’s most functional. Today, hospitals and clinics stand in ruins and many doctors have fled the country. Refugees are huddled in overcrowded shelters, without adequate food or medicine, let alone water or soap. Within the next weeks, the fears of medical experts and aid workers are set to become a reality, a COVID-19 outbreak in Syria’s refugee camps will likely be a nightmare.
Iraq: From U.S. Invasion to Social Breakdown
Iraq has been in the cross-hairs of U.S. imperialism ever since 1958 when the country had a revolution to expel foreign domination, especially of its oil. For decades, in spite of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and all of its horrors, the oil and the wealth it generated were kept within the country. In 2003, after an invasion in 1991 and over a decade of crippling sanctions, the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime under false pretenses. Between the war and the sanctions, Iraq’s infrastructure was shredded. Hospitals, water, electricity, roads… everything was destroyed when it wasn’t already falling apart. Today, 17 years after the U.S. invasion, the U.S. military remains in Iraq, along with the puppet government it installed. U.S. oil corporations have made billions of dollars exploiting the oil of Iraq. Not only have U.S. corporations pillaged the main economic resource of Iraq, the regime that was put in place in 2003 was led by Iraqi politicians who are just as committed to violence and repression as Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. By 2005, ordinary Iraqis were caught between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, which used death squads to keep control, and violence by political Islamic groups, including Al Qaeda and later, ISIS.
Even before COVID-19 appeared, Iraq was in a health crisis. The government’s priority is primarily to maintain the power and privileges of Iraqi elites. Only 2.5% of the state’s budget goes to healthcare, an amount less than half as much as in Jordan and one third as much as in Lebanon, although those are much poorer Middle Eastern states. Just last year in 2019, a major uprising took place in Iraq, demanding an end to violence and corruption, and better public services, including healthcare. With thousands of COVID-19 cases, and that number rising, Iraq’s health care system, hollowed out by decades of imperialist aggression and exploitation, is set to collapse under the weight of the crisis.
Yemen: In the Aftermath of a Horrific War
Since 2015, a horrific war has erupted in Yemen. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S., pummeled the country with bombs, and imposed a drastic economic blockade. Yemen is a regional battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. A rebel movement, the Houthis, based on a religious minority but with broader popular support, has fought an ongoing civil war against the Saudi-backed government with the help of Iran. The 2015 war, launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as head of the Saudi military, will have cost the lives of nearly a quarter million Yemenis this year. Some 20 million people in the country lack adequate food and ten million more are on the brink of starvation.
With hardly any functioning medical system, not to mention water, and electricity, Yemen is set for disaster if and when COVID-19 reaches the population. Just last year, the country was afflicted with a million cases of cholera, a disease that runs rampant when sanitation and health care are not adequate.
The Criminal System – Imperialism
The Arabian peninsula has been torn apart for over a hundred years by manipulations, invasions, and corruption as the big capitalist powers fight among themselves to make sure the resources of the Middle East become a prize for them to exploit. It is not a question of this or that U.S. administration or politician – there is a common effort among Democrats and Republicans to maintain control of the region for U.S. capitalists.
Certainly the Trump administration blatantly supports U.S.-allied regimes like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others. But Democrats like Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi can’t be looked at as an alternative where foreign policy is concerned. Both of them are longtime players in forming U.S. policy in Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The political representatives of the wealthy elite in the U.S. are united on their need to dominate the world, however much they disagree with each other on questions of domestic policy or personal style.
While each country in the world turns inward to deal with this catastrophic pandemic, the consequences of decades of imperialist violence have opened these and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East up to a nightmare scenario when COVID-19 hits with its full force. This is an indictment of this exploitative world system where the resources are dominated by a tiny minority, a system held together by murderous violence. We may not know the cure for COVID-19 but we know the cure for capitalism and imperialism – a revolution to put ordinary people in control of their lives, the world’s resources, and the wealth of human knowledge, and put an end to the system of imperialist domination that is tearing the Middle East and other places in the world apart.