How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

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Worshippers perform the evening Tarawih prayer during the fasting month of Ramadan around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque complex in Makkah on April 13, 2021. (AFP)
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An Emirati man gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at al-Barsha Health Centre in Dubai on December 24, 2020. (AFP file photo)
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Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
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Updated 19 April 2021

How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

  • Data from polling agency YouGov suggests pandemic will have long-lasting impact on attitudes towards public health
  • Fear of catching COVID-19 has fallen among Saudi and UAE respondents, while willingness to accept vaccines has grown

DUBAI: On March 11, 2020, just a matter of months after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, outbreaks of the novel coronavirus were reported from multiple continents — marking the start of an unprecedented health emergency and an abrupt change in daily habits.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to raise its alert from a scattering of localized epidemics to a full-blown pandemic, governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area were quick to respond.

Mandatory nationwide closures were put in place, schools and workplaces emptied, front-line workers mobilized and households ordered to stay home. Few could remember a time of such disruption or ever seeing their streets so empty.

Data collected by British polling agency YouGov found that in April 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, some 75 percent of respondents across Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt “somewhat” or “very scared” of contracting the virus. This fear has generally fallen as the pandemic has worn on.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments placed much of the onus on the general public to abide by new personal hygiene and social distancing guidelines.

In the same YouGov poll, 78 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents said they had improved their personal hygiene (frequently washing their hands and using hand sanitizer), while 80 percent said they had avoided public places and 70 percent said they had started wearing face masks in public.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through contact with infected individuals when airborne particles are expelled through coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces and transferring particles to the eyes, nose and mouth.




A Saudi police officer inspects a motorist's permit to travel during the lockdown in the Kingdom in April 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19. (SPA file photo)

The combination of lockdown measures and ubiquitous public health messages has had a profound effect on people’s daily lives, running the gamut from how they work and study to how they travel and socialize.

It has also highlighted the significant role that widespread community uptake of hygiene and social distancing rules can play in successfully containing outbreaks.

During the first six months of the pandemic, YouGov data showed rates of mask wearing were high in the GCC. Some 80 percent of UAE respondents and 69 percent of Saudi respondents said they were consistently wearing face masks during this period.

Throughout the pandemic, at-risk groups, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, have been urged to be extra vigilant. In August 2020, 80 percent of Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places, whereas just 58 percent of 18-24-year-old Saudis said they took the same precautions.

In the same month in the UAE, 81 percent of people aged over 45 reported wearing a face mask in public, while just 66 percent of 18-24 year olds said they were complying with the mandatory mask rule.

Although men and women are equally susceptible to catching coronavirus, medical data suggests men are more likely to suffer from severe symptoms and ultimately die from the disease.




In August 2020, four out of every five Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places. (Reuters file photo)

And yet, despite WHO advice to the contrary, YouGov data found that male Saudi and UAE residents were less likely to improve their personal hygiene, less likely to wear face masks, less likely to avoid crowded places and less likely to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 142 million people have been infected worldwide and more than 3 million have died. The UAE has seen about 500,000 COVID-19 cases, while Saudi Arabia’s total is approaching the 405,000 mark.

Compared with many European states, where governments were slower to react to the pandemic, the outbreak in the GCC has been relatively mild, with a much lower death rate. But even here, as vaccines are rolled out and restrictions are gradually eased, things feel a long way from normal.


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“What’s happening to us may seem to so many people to be alien and unnatural, but plagues are not new to our species — they’re just new to us,” writes social epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis in his book “Apollo’s arrow: The profound and enduring impact of coronavirus on the way we live.”

And just like the great epidemics of the past, writes Christakis, the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, bringing with it a brighter period in which people seek out long-denied social interactions.

The Yale professor even predicts a second “roaring 20s” similar to the decade of prosperity and cultural resurgence that followed the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

But in order for this to happen, people must be safe — and feel safe. Annual vaccinations, improved treatments and vaccine passports are all possible tools to get societies and economies back on track.

Until then, the behavior of those least at risk will continue to impact those most at risk. Therefore, getting “back to normal” will depend not only on medical science, but on the actions of the community as a whole.

Without a widespread uptake of vaccines and containment measures, the virus will enjoy a stronger foothold and a greater chance of mutating, allowing it to become more transmissible and its symptoms more severe.

“When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases,” according to the WHO’s “Vaccine Explained” series. “The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates — and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.”

INNUMBERS

83% Saudi respondents who believe the pandemic situation is improving.

14% UAE respondents who believe the pandemic situation is getting worse.

70% Saudi and UAE respondents who say they will continue avoiding crowded places.

Source: YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor, March 2021

A major factor in uptake is the trustworthiness of the vaccines on offer.

In early December last year, the UAE became one of the first countries to approve the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use. YouGov’s polling data at the end of that month found that just 56 percent of UAE respondents felt comfortable taking the vaccine or had already done so. In Saudi Arabia, that figure was only 42 percent.




An Emirati man gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at al-Barsha Health Centre in Dubai on December 24, 2020. (AFP file photo)

Since the national vaccination program was launched in Saudi Arabia, more than 2 million doses have been administered at 500 centers across the Kingdom. In the UAE, which has one of the highest vaccination rates per head of the population in the world, more than 10 million have been administered.

Since the December 2020 poll, confidence in the safety and efficacy of the new crop of COVID-19 vaccines has grown. Data from the YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor in March 2021 showed an increase in willingness to take the vaccine by 20 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia and 26 percent in the UAE.

Now the vast majority of respondents in the UAE (82 percent) and in Saudi Arabia (62 percent) say that they have either received a vaccine, or are willing to take one.

In other findings, 83 percent of Saudi respondents believe the pandemic situation is improving; only 14 percent UAE respondents believe the pandemic situation is getting worse, while but 70 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents intend to continue avoiding crowded places.

None of this is surprising given that scientists still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, its mutations, spread patterns, long-term symptoms and its ability to outmaneuver the vaccines and treatments doctors throw at it.

Mask wearing, hand sanitizing and social distancing might therefore be requisite behaviors for some time yet to come.

 


Israeli military accused of using media to trick Hamas militants in Gaza

Updated 21 min 57 sec ago

Israeli military accused of using media to trick Hamas militants in Gaza

  • “It was not a lie. It was a manipulation," says Or Heller, a veteran military correspondent
  • The announcement sent Hamas fighters rushing into defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels

JERUSALEM: Early Friday, just after midnight, the Israeli military put out an ominous statement to the media: “IDF air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip.”
The terse statement set off frenzied speculation that Israel had launched a ground invasion of Gaza — a much-feared scenario that would mark a bloody escalation of this week’s operation against Hamas militants. Some reporters were even told outright the incursion had begun.
Hours later, the military issued a “clarification.” There were no troops inside Gaza. But by then, several major news outlets had erroneously reported the ground offensive was under way.
While the army attempted to play down the incident as a misunderstanding, well-placed Israeli military commentators said the media had been used as part of an elaborate ruse to lure Hamas militants into a deadly trap that may have killed dozens of fighters.
“They didn’t lie,” said Or Heller, a veteran military correspondent on Israel’s Channel 13 TV. “It was a manipulation. It was smart and it was successful.”
This is how it unfolded:
Late Thursday, after days of airstrikes, Israel announced it was calling up thousands of reservists and amassing troops along the border ahead of a possible ground invasion. In another sign of escalation, Israeli tanks stationed along the border opened fire at targets inside Gaza.
In previous rounds of fighting, ground incursions have resulted in widespread destruction in Gaza and heavy casualties on both sides.
That set the stage for the late-night deception. According to Heller, Israel began scrambling forces along the border in what appeared to be final preparations for an invasion. Then came the announcement to the media, issued simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic on Twitter. There followed alerts in major outlets that the invasion was under way.
The Israeli moves sent Hamas fighters rushing into defensive positions in an underground network of tunnels known as the Metro, according to Heller and other Israeli reports.
Israel called in 160 warplanes and bombarded the tunnels for 40 minutes, the military said. Heller said it was his understanding that scores of militants had been killed, though he said it was impossible to say.
“What we saw tonight was a very sophisticated operation that had a media aspect to it,” Heller said.
Hamas has not commented on the incident, and it was impossible to confirm the Israeli reports.
Heller said veteran Israeli correspondents, who have close ties to the military and in many cases have served themselves, knew that there was no way Israel was sending troops across enemy lines at this stage. Heller and other military correspondents even put out statements on Twitter assuring the jittery public that there was no ground operation.
The Associated Press, based on its analysis of the army’s statement, phone calls to military officials and on the ground reporting in Gaza, concluded there was no ground incursion and did not report there was one.
But others said the military had misled them or even lied when asked to clarify, turning the foreign media into an accessory of sorts.
Felicia Schwartz, correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said she alerted news of a ground offensive after receiving explicit confirmation from Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
In a statement posted on Twitter, she said Conricus “told me directly, `There are ground troops in Gaza.’ That was the basis for a first story saying so. He retracted that statement two hours later and I changed the story to reflect that, and that is noted in the text and will be corrected.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, Conricus blamed an “internal miscommunication.”
“These things can sometimes happen in the midst of a complex operation with many moving parts and with an unclear picture of what was happening,” he said. “As soon as I understood that I had the wrong information, I updated the relevant people with a clarification.”
Militaries around the world have long used deception and trickery against their enemies. Two years ago, the Israeli military reportedly faked the injuries of soldiers at the scene of a Hezbollah missile strike, going so far as to evacuate them to a hospital in a helicopter.
According to reports at the time, the army staged the injuries to trick Hezbollah into thinking it had inflicted casualties and therefore would agree to a cease-fire.
Friday’s misleading statement further strained what has often been a rocky relationship between the IDF and the foreign media.
Peter Lerner, a former military spokesman to the foreign media, said the Israeli public in general has long felt the international media focus too heavily on the Palestinian side of the story while minimizing Israeli concerns and suffering — and the army is similarly inclined.
Lerner said he felt it was unlikely the military intentionally lied, but damage was done regardless.
“Your currency is credibility,” he said. “I think this is a crisis of that credibility in the way it’s being portrayed.”


7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots

Updated 15 May 2021

7 dead in West Bank as Israel deals with 3 hot spots

  • Security Council to meet on Sunday

JERUSALEM: The number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank has risen to seven.

The Israeli army said one was killed after attempting to stab a soldier. Palestinian health officials confirmed that death and said six other Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in the occupied West Bank.

The Health Ministry said five were killed in stone-throwing clashes with Israeli forces in several locations, and a sixth was killed during an attempt to stab an Israeli soldier on Friday. A seventh was killed in Nablus.

Israel faced a widening conflict, as deadly violence escalated across the West Bank amid a massive aerial bombardment in Gaza and unprecedented unrest among Arabs and Jews inside the country.

A Palestinian security source said Friday’s fighting was the “most intense” since the second intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000.

Palestinian armed groups in the enclave have launched more than 1,800 rockets at Israel since Monday, killing nine people, with sirens wailing across the country throughout the week.

Violence on Fridays in the West Bank is a traditional facet of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Friday’s escalation appeared linked to the raging hostilities in Gaza and the internal unrest in Israel.

More than 150 were injured across the territory occupied by Israel since 1967, with Palestinians hit by Israeli bullets, tear gas and in some cases live fire, said the Red Crescent.

The UN said the Security Council would meet Sunday to address Gaza.

China accused the US of “ignoring the suffering” of Muslims, after Washington stopped the council from meeting Friday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was “deeply concerned about the violence in the streets of Israel,” and his department urged citizens to “reconsider” travel to the country.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said rocket fire by Hamas against Israel amounted to “terrorist attacks.”

Several international airlines — including British Airways, Lufthansa and Iberia — canceled flights amid the onslaught.

Israel said hundreds of the rockets fired toward its territory, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, had been intercepted.

Israel has hit roughly 750 sites it described as military targets such as Hamas bomb-making facilities and the homes of senior militant commanders. Three high-rise buildings were flattened.

Israel estimates that more than 30 leaders of Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad have been killed.

“I said we’d deliver heavy blows to Hamas and other terror groups, and we’re doing that,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“They’re paying and will continue to pay dearly for that. It’s not over yet.”

Within Israel, an unprecedented wave of mob violence has seen Arabs and Jews savagely beat each other and attack places of worship.

More than 750 people have been arrested this week, including more than 100 overnight, police said.

In Lod, where an Arab man was shot dead by a Jewish Israeli on Monday, the outside of a synagogue was burnt overnight, they added.

Officers had detained Jews “walking around looking for trouble” in Netanya and Beersheba, while Arabs in other towns attacked police and police stations with stones and petrol bombs.

In one of the most shocking episodes of the intercommunal violence, a far-right Jewish mob beat a man they considered an Arab in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, leaving him with serious injuries.

“Nothing justifies the lynching of Arabs by Jews, and nothing justifies the lynching of Jews by Arabs,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s civil aviation authority said it was directing incoming flights to Tel Aviv to circle offshore when rockets are being fired from Gaza, with pilots choosing whether to divert to Ramon airport in the south or wait until runways are checked for ordnance.


‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes

Updated 15 May 2021

‘Death and darkness’: Gazans’ night of terror as Israel strikes

  • The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially the northern areas, began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 30 minutes

GAZA CITY: Muhammad Abu Fares’ family and relatives endured the most terrifying night of their lives on Thursday when Israeli artillery launched a devastating bombardment on towns in the northern Gaza Strip.

“I heard shells exploding and people screaming,” Abu Fares, 27, who lives in the Bedouin village, told Arab News.

“I went out quickly to see what was happening. The house next to ours was hit and some neighbors helped remove the bodies and the wounded.

“The scene was terrible with several bodies lying there and the injured crying out for help. I carried six bodies out to the street,” he said.

Israeli artillery targeted border areas in the northern Gaza Strip, including the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia as well as the Bedouin village, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and seek shelter in UN schools.

Abu Fares went with his family to an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) school in Beit Lahia after accompanying three wounded people in an ambulance to hospital.

The UN aid organization said in a statement: “As of last night hundreds of people, many Palestine refugees, are seeking refuge and safe shelter in UNRWA schools, especially in the northern part of the strip and Gaza city.

“UNRWA has to quickly turn identified schools into properly managed shelters. In 2021, the situation is slightly different in that we now have to consider the COVID-19 pandemic and how to minimize the risk of people crowding in a confined space and spreading the virus.” 

The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially the northern areas, began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 30 minutes, leaving residents terrified.

Lubna Younis, 37, told Arab News: “We endured a night during which we saw death more than once. We did not know what was happening or where the shelling was coming from. We thought this would be the end. The shelling had become indiscriminate and Israeli warplanes bombed homes everywhere.”

The Israeli strikes raised the death toll to 122, including 31 children and 20 women, while more than 900 others were wounded, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

On Friday, the streets were empty of people, and shops remained closed, except for some grocery stores.

Mamdouh Mutair, 42, sat at the entrance to his house with some of his neighbors after six houses nearby were destroyed by Israeli shelling late on Wednesday.

“My mind cannot understand what happened and is still happening. It is beyond comprehension and without logic. In a quarter of an hour, there was death, there was smoke and darkness everywhere,” Mutair told Arab News.

“Dozens of rockets fell suddenly at midnight, destroying all the houses in front of us. Broken glass was everywhere, the cars under the houses were destroyed, children were terrified, I embraced my children and my wife, and we began crying and kissing them as if it was the end of our lives,” he said.

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Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action

Updated 15 May 2021

Lebanese in war of words over Palestine action

  • Former MP warns country ‘is neither a military base nor a missile platform for Palestinian, Iranian factions’
  • Power shortages add to woes as Turkish firm halts supply

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s response to the violence in Gaza and its relationship with Palestine is the subject of angry debate after rockets were fired from southern Lebanon toward Israeli settlements.

Former MP Nadim Gemayel warned that “Lebanon is neither a military base nor a missile platform for Palestinian factions or Iranian militias.”

He demanded that “the state and security services act quickly and strike with an iron fist, for Lebanon today cannot afford to repeat the experience of the 60s.”

Gemayel said the “number one cause today is the Lebanese cause only.”

MP Bilal Abdallah said that “Lebanon is facing an economic collapse and a vacuum in its political power, and the Palestine issue should not be put at the forefront.”

He told Arab News: “What is happening requires insight and calm.”

The remarks of both political figures came as Lebanese and Palestinian youths stormed a fence on the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel on Friday.

However, they were unable to cross the Israeli security barrier that stood in their way.

Groups of young men demonstrated near the border area facing the settlement of Al-Mutla, and attempted to cross a barbed-wire fence to gain access, but were met with tear-gas canisters fired by Israeli troops, forcing them to disperse and return to Lebanese territory.

The incident came after rockets were launched from southern Lebanon on Thursday toward Israeli settlements.

While Hezbollah denied any connection to the strikes, a statement hinted at the group’s potential involvement in the conflict if violence worsens.

The Lebanese army announced on Friday that “military units found three rockets in the vicinity of the Rashidieh refugee camp in the Tire region in southern Lebanon.”

At least four Grad missiles were fired from the vicinity of the Rashidieh camp, targeting the Israeli settlements of Shlomi and Nahariya. No party has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Maj. Gen. Subhi Abu Arab, commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in Lebanon, told Arab News that he visited the Rashidieh camp on Friday morning for an inspection, and that “the situation was normal.”

He said: “No rockets were fired from the camp or its surroundings, but rather from an area further away.

“We do not know who fired the rockets, and we leave the matter to the Lebanese army, as this area falls under its responsibility, and the army units are carrying out their tasks in search of the rocket launchers.

“I have not received any information until now about the matter from Lebanese Army intelligence.”

The Lebanese quandary over Palestine is a division that goes back to the demands of the Maronite Patriarchate for Lebanese neutrality.

Solidarity with Palestine dominated Friday sermons in mosques, and protests broke out around the country.

MP Bilal Abdallah told Arab News: “Emotionally, we are all in solidarity with the Palestinians and distressed by the killing that is taking place against the innocent. There is no arguing on this matter. But expanding the war zone is a matter that needs to be studied.”

Abdallah said: “If opening the Lebanon front is required, this has its own calculations and consequences.”

He added: “Let us look at the prospects of the ongoing clash, whether it is rectified with a cease-fire or if it escalates.”

The MP said that Lebanon “cannot afford any involvement in what is happening, so let it be a complete front and not only Lebanon, but rather open the Golan fronts all the way to Jordan.”

Abdallah added: “The existing communication in the region involves redrawing their map, and this presupposes the need to avoid rushing to judgment.”

However, another popular sentiment among the Lebanese public is that the issues facing their own country should be dealt with first, before foreign affairs are considered.

The Lebanese internal crisis was aggravated by the announcement of the Electricite du Liban (EDL) on Friday that electricity supply has begun to decline after Turkey’s Karpowership, which supplies the country through two floating stations, said it had “suspended supplies due to payment arrears, and after a legal threat to its stations.”

A spokesperson said that the company “regretted turning off the generators,” adding that it had “made every effort to avoid taking this decision.”

Lebanon receives 370 megawatts of electricity from the company, about a quarter of total supply.

The country may face critical electricity problems unless, according to the EDL statement, a speedy decision is made regarding a controversial treasury advance of 300 billion Lebanese pounds ($196 million) for the resumption of tenders for the buying of fuels, especially gas.

The EDL has also urged officials to secure hard currencies for production, transportation, and distribution, to ensure a minimum level of stability in Lebanon’s electricity supply.


Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians

Updated 15 May 2021

Jordanians march to border in solidarity with Palestinians

  • Protestors demand government open border to Palestinians, end diplomatic ties with Israel

AMMAN: Hundreds of Jordanians held an impromptu protest near the Jordanian border with the occupied Palestinian territories on Friday, calling on their government to take action over the escalating conflict in Israel.

The event, quickly organized on social media, was held near the village of Karameh in the Shouna governorate under the slogan “yalla (let’s go) to the borders.”
 
The protesters, waving Palestinian and Jordanian flags, gathered near the monument for the martyrs of the Battle of Karameh, and called on the Jordanian government to open the border. 

The monument is a poignant location, as the site of significant Jordanian-Palestinian military resistance against an Israel Defense Force (IDF) offensive in 1968, leading to the eventual Israeli withdrawal from the village on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

Mohammad Hmeidi, a doctor who attended the protest, told Arab News: “Our goal … is to pressure the government of Jordan to cut off its relations with (Israel), to cancel the Gaza deal and to kick out the (Israeli) ambassador as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”

Protesters chanted slogans in support of Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, shouting “millions are willing to die and become martyrs.”

They also chanted in support of Mohammad Deif, leader of Hamas’s Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, which are currently engaged in rocket attacks and counter strikes with the IDF.
 
Jordanian security forces broke up the protests when demonstrators came too close to the border. A spokesman for the police said they had used reasonable force with some of the protesters, after they entered several private properties and caused damage.
 
Adnan Abu Odeh, a former adviser to Jordan’s King Hussein, told Arab News that the protests are important for their symbolic value. 

“It is Friday and Jordanian youths are unemployed. This event is important, especially in that it gives emotional support to Palestinians, but the real problem for Israel is within — the crime of apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians, which had been hidden since 1948, is now obvious for all to see,” he said, referring to a recent report by Human Rights Watch accusing Israel of enforcing an apartheid system across the country.

Abu Odeh said he was unsure whether this would tempt Jordan to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, however.

“Jordan had exhausted all its efforts at the UN. It has provided the defense team fighting the eviction of Palestinian families from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, with all the documents in its possession,” he said.

“It all depends on whether the Israelis will continue their onslaught, or accept the offers for a ceasefire.”