Low coronavirus cases in Middle East raise doubts

By José Luis Paniagua

Cairo, Mar 30 (efe-epa).- With around 350 million inhabitants, the Middle East seems to have contained the impact of the coronavirus, except for Iran, one of the world’s worst-hit countries.

The situation has raised questions about whether the figures issued by most of this region’s government have been reliable.

While Iran has reported 38,309 coronavirus cases and 2,640 deaths, other Middle Eastern countries – including Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine, combined have registered less than 10,000 cases and a little over 100 deaths.

With this relatively low record a question has emerged: are things that good or do the published figures not reflect reality?

It is “a combination of both things including effective initial response and probably in some countries underestimating (the numbers),” Richard Brennan, regional emergency director for the World Health Organization, told Efe.

“In many countries because they don’t have the testing capacities at the scale that we would like (…) I am not saying in every country but we do know that in some countries the numbers available are an underestimate not underreporting.”

Brennan also said that “a number of the countries have done the right thing: when they have identified cases they tried to isolate cases and quarantined their contacts and moved quickly in that regard”.

He ruled out the possibility that authorities were falsifying cases.

“The question we keep getting asked: are those countries hiding cases?” he said, adding that the WHO “don’t have much evidence of that”.

“In some countries right now it’s mainly the severe and critical cases that they’re testing,” he said.

“We think that there is probably an underestimate in many of the countries across the region right now”.

The region faces a double challenge, the countries’ health services and that testing capacity is not on the necessary scale to detect all the cases, he added.

Israel has been the second-worst coronavirus hit country in the region following Iran, with 3,765 cases and 15 deaths.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Syria and Yemen represent combined around 5,000 cases and more than 100 deaths.

The Middle Eastern countries – excluding Iran – have reported 9,000 cases and 121 deaths.Adi Stren, a Tel Aviv University virologist, linked the number of cases detected in her country with a bigger testing capacity.

“It is not clear if it (the low number) is true or it is because of lack of testing,” she told Efe, commenting on the number of cases in other countries.

The countries that have been through conflicts over the past few years have less capacity to face the outbreak, the WHO has warned.

Among these countries are Yemen, Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, with zero, nine and 547 cases respectively, as well as Libya and Somalia, which have reported three cases each.

“I don’t think that low numbers right now allow us to be complacent, I think what we’ve seen in other countries even in very developed countries with a strong health system the outbreak starts (…) and then it begins at a certain point to accelerate,” Brennan said.

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