Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, SOAS, University of London comes up with ‘Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem that shows why humanity needs a global response to coronavirus’ to tell us that this novel pandemic per this poem is not locally that much of a novelty, not different from its predecessors and it is all about human connectivity.
Coronavirus is all about human connectivity. From a philosophical perspective, I’ve been thinking about how this virus is forcing us to confront our common fate, highlighting our connections in the process. The novel coronavirus defies geography and national borders. There is no escaping it – exactly because humanity is inevitably interdependent.
In a beautifully emotive poem called Bani Adam (human kind), drafted in the 13th century, the Persian-Muslim polymath Sa’adi used what can be employed as an analogy to our current challenge in order to visualise this common constitution of humanity. It reads:
Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.
These verses from Sa’adi’s Bani Adam decorate the walls of the United Nations building in New York and the poem was quoted by US president Barack Obama in his videotaped New Year (Nowrouz) message to Iran in March 2009 to open up a new chapter in Iranian relations with the US. More recently, the British band Coldplay used the poem as the title of a song in their album Everyday Life. It’s a poem that speaks to the inevitability of a common fate of humanity, that unites us into an intimately shared space.
A common fate
This effort of conjoining what has been artificially divided through nationalisms, religious doctrines and other forms of ideology, was equally central to a poem by the German genius Johann Wolfgang Goethe. He was very much influenced by Persian/Muslim philosophy and poetry, in particular by the 14th-century poet Hafez-e Shirazi.
In his magnificent work West-Eastern Divan, a very early manifesto against cultural essentialism – viewing one’s own culture in complete separation of others – Goethe wrote:
When people keep themselves apart in mutual disdain. A truth is hidden from the heart. Their goals are much the same.
As a communicable disease, the coronavirus compounds our inevitable common fate. Our existence cannot be safeguarded in isolation, we can only survive together: my fate is yours, ours is theirs. Social media, for instance, has adopted terms such as “viral” to describe particularly successful Tweets or Facebook posts, which demonstrate the dialogues between our bodies and minds that are ongoing at every second of the day on this global canvass. This interconnected reality of ours merges (rather than divides) categories such as “us” and “them”, “self” and “other” which are at the heart of problematic ideas about today’s eternal cultural wars.
Our leaders continue to speak about the coronavirus in distinctly martial and psycho-nationalist terms. Even in a staunchly secular liberal-democracy such as France, president Emmanuel Macron described the crisis in war-like terms. US president Donald Trump used similar words when he likened himself to a “wartime president” in order to describe his fight against the virus.
And yet at the height of the pandemic, Trump’s administration pushed through more unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has been badly hit by coronavirus, and Venezuelan officials . At the time when countries such as China and Cuba are sending specialists to the epicentres of the crisis, Trump has punished the most vulnerable members of Iranian society for the sake of nationalistic power politics.
In search of a global response
In the meantime, many of us are concerned because we are finding out, tragedy by tragedy, that there is a lack of multilateral cooperation. Our elected leaders are incompetent or helpless and rampant capitalism has focused much of our resources on profit, rather than on institutions that serve the people.
The coronavirus transmuted into such an all-encompassing pandemic for two simple reasons. First, our common biology does not respect any of the mental and physical borders that were created to keep us apart. Second, coronavirus revealed how globalised our contemporary world is. Our lives are so closely interlinked and networked that this outbreak travelled all around the world within weeks.
The speed at which the virus spread demonstrates quite clearly the contracted space that we are all living in on Earth. Yet our politicians speak about national remedies and continue as if nothing has happened, as if we can insulate ourselves forever. It should be the World Health Organization and other UN bodies which take the lead to coordinate global policies for global problems.
Yet, in clear contradiction to what is needed, politicians continue to speak of coronavirus in terms of mere national emergencies. This approach compartmentalises what is conjoined, and contributes to the current crisis which can only be faced properly with global coordination and within multilateral organisations. But the UN and its auxiliary network is despised by the new breed of hyper-nationalist leaders all around the world. It is these leaders who have stunted our ability to resolve borderless challenges such as this current pandemic.
There is a common fate inscribed in our lives which demands global answers to global challenges. “No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne in 1624. It’s time that we act upon the science, with the empathy of a poet, and institute a new form of internationalism that acknowledges and celebrates our common humanity.
Nasser Saidi describes in a Project Syndicate article The Arab World’s Perfect COVID-19 Storm. The author holds that this recent pandemic analysed here impacts will be significant. It is perhaps the first time that these are equally shared not only throughout the MENA region but the world at large. Any differences will, however, be in the manner with which this pandemic is specifically confronted locally. Read on for a better perspective view of the GCC region’s future.
March 24, 2020
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council states are rolling out stimulus measures to support businesses and the economy. But the camel in the room remains oil, especially the immediate impact on demand of the Chinese and global economic slowdown.
BEIRUT – Middle Eastern and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are heading toward a recession in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, collapsing oil prices, and the unfolding global financial crisis.
The fast-spreading global pandemic – with Europe its new epicenter – is generating both supply and demand shocks. The supply shock results from output cuts, factory closures, disruptions to supply chains, trade, and transport, and higher prices for material supplies, along with a tightening of credit. And the aggregate-demand shock stems from lower consumer spending – owing to quarantines, “social distancing,” and the reduction in incomes caused by workplace disruptions and closures – and delayed investment spending.
The two largest Arab economies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are proactively fighting the spread of COVID-19, for example by closing schools and universities and postponing large events such as the Art Dubai fair and the Dubai World Cup horse race. Likewise, Bahrain has postponed its Formula One Grand Prix.
Saudi Arabia has even announced a temporary ban on non-compulsory umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, and has closed mosques. Because religious tourism is one of the Kingdom’s main sources of non-oil revenue, the umrah ban and likely severe restrictions on the obligatory (for all Muslims) hajj pilgrimage will have a large negative impact on economic growth.
True, policymakers across the GCC are rolling out stimulus measures to support businesses and the economy. Central banks have focused on assisting small and medium-size enterprises by deferring loan repayments, extending concessional loans, and reducing point-of-sale and e-commerce fees. And GCC authorities have unveiled stimulus packages to support companies in the hard-hit tourism, retail, and trade sectors. The UAE has a consolidated package valued at AED126 billion ($34.3 billion), while Saudi Arabia’s is worth $32 billion and Qatar’s totals $23.3 billion. Moreover, policymakers are supporting money markets: Bahrain, for example, recently slashed its overnight lending rate from 4% to 2.45%.
But the camel in the room remains oil, especially the immediate impact on demand of the Chinese and global economic slowdown. The International Energy Agency optimistically estimates that global oil demand will fall to 99.9 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2020, about 90,000 bpd lower than in 2019 (in the IEA’s pessimistic scenario, demand could plunge by 730,000 bpd). Indeed, successive production cuts had already led to OPEC’s global market share falling from 40% in 2014 to about 34% in January 2020, to the benefit of US shale producers.
The weakening outlook for oil demand has been exacerbated by the Saudi Arabia-Russia oil-price war, with the Saudis not only deciding to ramp up production, but also announcing discounts of up to $8 per barrel for Northwest Europe and other large consumers of Russian oil. Although the Kingdom’s strategic aim is to weaken shale-oil producers and regain market share, the price war will also hit weaker oil-dependent economies (such as Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Iraq, Nigeria, and Oman), and put other major oil producers and companies under severe pressure. Indeed, in the two years after oil prices’ last sharp fall, in 2014, OPEC member states lost a collective $450 billion in revenues.
That episode prompted GCC governments to pursue fiscal consolidation by phasing out fuel subsidies, implementing a 5% value-added tax (in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain), and rationalizing public spending. Nonetheless, GCC countries continue to rely on oil for government revenues, and their average fiscal break-even price of $64 per barrel is more than double the current Brent oil price of about $30 per barrel. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have estimated break-even prices of $70 and $83.60, respectively, while Oman ($88), Bahrain ($92), and Iran ($195) are even more vulnerable in this regard. More diversified Russia, by contrast, can balance its budget with oil at $42 per barrel.
The near-halving of oil prices since the start of 2020, the sharp fall in global growth, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will put severe strains on both oil and non-oil revenue. As a result, GCC governments’ budget deficits are likely to soar to 10-12% of GDP in 2020, more than double earlier forecasts, while lower oil prices will also result in substantial current-account deficits.
Governments will respond by cutting (mostly capital) spending, magnifying the negative effect on the non-oil sector. Some countries (Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) can tap fiscal and international reserves, while others (Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia) will have to turn to international financial markets.
But will GCC governments be able to borrow their way out of this phase of lower oil prices? Global equity and debt markets currently are close to meltdown; with investors fleeing to safe government bonds, liquidity is drying up.
The GCC countries will suffer a negative wealth effect, owing to losses on their sovereign wealth funds’ portfolios and net foreign assets. And, given bulging deficits and the prospect of continued low oil prices, sovereign and corporate borrowers will find it harder and more expensive to access markets. The ongoing financial crisis will therefore exacerbate the effects of the oil-price shock and the pandemic.
The pandemic itself is still unfolding, and its eventual global impact will depend on its geographical spread, duration, and intensity. But it is already clear that in the coming weeks, there will be heightened uncertainty about global growth prospects, oil prices, and financial-market volatility. And as the pandemic continues its deadly march, the GCC economies – like many others – will be unable to avoid recession.
Covid-19 may have given North African governments a respite from protests, but this is unlikely to last long.
March 23, 2020
In the short term, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to provide the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia with a respite from political contestation and mobilization. They have all struggled to varying degrees recently with popular dissent and challenges to their legitimacy. But in the long run, as each grapple with the economic and political aftershocks of the virus, the same questions of credibility and efficiency are likely to come back with renewed vigor.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has been limited in North Africa, despite the region’s proximity to Europe. As of March 20, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Morocco had 77 recorded cases, Algeria 90, and Tunisia 54. Recognizing the vulnerability of their strained healthcare systems, the governments in the three countries responded early and aggressively to the new situation. They sealed their borders, limited social movement, and urged citizens to practice social confinement. All have closed down public spaces, including educational institutions, places of worship, cafes, and public transport. They have also asked non-essential public-sector workers to stay home.
All three countries fear that a pandemic would overwhelm them, as they lack the infrastructure or resources, or both, to respond to an outbreak. In Algeria, there are only 1.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared to a global average of 2.7. In Morocco the figure is 1.1. And in Tunisia, which is closest to the global average, the number is 2.3. In comparison, it is 2.9 in the United States and 13.4 in Japan. While North African countries boast younger populations potentially less affected by the disease, 6.7 percent of the population in Algeria is over 65. In Morocco it is 7.1 percent. And in Tunisia it is 8.8 percent.
With regard to mitigating the economic impacts of Covid-19, responses have varied. Looking at border closures alone, Morocco and Tunisia must grapple with the significant economic losses likely to result from a cratering tourism sector. In Morocco and Tunisia, tourism contributes 19 percent and 15.9 percent to GDP, respectively.
The Moroccan government has created a fund to address the crisis. The fund was initially 10 billion dirhams, or $1 billion, mostly to supplement the needs of the healthcare sector. Given its limited budget, the state encouraged donations from businesses and private citizens, which helped raise the sum to 27 billion dirhams, roughly $2.7 billion. Moroccans were heartened and incredulous at the speed and generosity of the donations. The state has indicated it would support exposed sectors and has begun putting in place mechanisms to compensate some of the most vulnerable and affected citizens.
Algeria has taken similar steps, providing paid leave for mothers, preventing price gouging, and speeding up the importation of foodstuffs to avoid shortages. Algeria is something of an outlier in that its energy-dominated economy has never depended on tourism or manufacturing.
In Tunisia, the government put in place a fund through public donations to combat the virus. The fund has so far brought in around 4 million dinars, or $1.36 million. On March 21, Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh announced a number of economic measures and an aid package to struggling businesses and industries. But the country’s economic challenges, with limited economic growth, high unemployment, high public-sector expenditures, and low GDP growth, make the strain of Covid-19 even greater to bear. Tunisia is bracing for an unprecedented hit.
Painful economic fallout will once again taint confidence in these governments. Each of the three countries has faced sustained political contestation in recent years. This has largely been in the form of protests calling for a new political system in Algeria and more accountability in Morocco and Tunisia. All have been driven by the socioeconomic grievances that have shaped the region since, and even before, 2011. However, in a time of great uncertainty, as today, fear has pushed people to accept existing political structures as a source of certainty and strength, creating a sense of solidarity that has given governments a respite. It has deflated the opposition and limited the public’s desire to push for change.
As the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic become clearer, they are likely to bring to the fore the policy failures that made the North African nations so fragile and susceptible to the virus in the first place. Economic mismanagement and underinvestment in infrastructure and human development have resulted in systems characterized by inequality and social precariousness. The governments of the three countries might be able to reinvent themselves in the short term, but beyond that the consequences of their errors are potentially destabilizing.
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