The relentless narrative of war that addresses COVID-19 as a “faceless enemy” – initiated by liberal democracies – is now echoed in the Middle East and North Africa region.
French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the first world leaders to respond to COVID-19 with a campaign akin to that of a relentless war. In his televised speech on March 16, he used the word “war” eight times, referring to COVID-19's unprecedented measures. Expressing himself solemnly, he called for a “general mobilization” and compared health service personnel to World War I soldiers fighting against an “invisible enemy.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson He declared himself head of a “government in times of war,” and so did President Donald Trump.
In the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, this description of war has shaped a COVID-19 in a way that has caused hysteria, fear and polarization among citizens. The media, observers and politicians have given the story a military twist by using terms like “War economy”, “battle”, “front”, “curfew”, “martyrs” and “health care soldiers”.
This global trend has given rise to a warlike oratory that has allowed governments around the world to exercise emergency powers and impose draconian measures that in any other circumstance would be unacceptable.
Strict confinements and curfews
In countries in the Middle East and North Africa, health care services are overloaded or underfunded, to say the least. Furthermore, many of the region's health systems have been destroyed by war or privatized.
Unlike the richest countries, many hospitals in the region do not have sufficient capacity to treat a high number of patients. If the coronavirus expands, these health systems would quickly become saturated. And this, in turn, could lead to a massive outbreak by all walks of life, including the privileged elite.
In this unusual public acknowledgment of the potential failure of health systems, several governments in the region soon imposed rigorous measures, even though the number of COVID-19 cases remained low.
Jordan was the first country to succumb to confinement and curfew on March 19, quickly accompanied by Morocco on March 20; Tunisia on the 22nd; and Algeria, on the 24th.
The Gulf region also joined the confinement. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain supported the initiative on March 26, and Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of members of the royal family are said to be contaminated, followed on March 29.
Countries throughout the region have firmly applied these measures by criminalizing anyone who violates the rules of confinement.
Thousands have been arrested. “Anyone who breaches security regulations will be treated as a criminal, because not respecting the regulation in the context of the pandemic is a crime,” said Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Military presence in the “war” against COVID-19
Although the COVID-19 crisis does not require military confrontation or physical “fighting”, several governments in the region have excessively mobilized their troops to support “war efforts” in terms of logistics, public order and publicity campaigns.
Jordan and Tunisia were two of the first countries to deploy the Army to patrol the streets and enforce confinement.
Surreal scenes emerged showing the disproportion in the deployment of troops. In Tunisia, a military helicopter flew at a very low altitude to stop a soccer game that was being played in the neighborhood:
– Hamza (@Hamza_Zhiou) April 10, 2020
Surreal scene! A Tunisian air force helicopter flies at a very low altitude to stop a soccer game in a neighborhood.
In Jordan and Morocco, tank soldiers set up checkpoints between cities. Military aircraft carrying medical resources were recorded.
In Egypt, in a public and diplomatic offensive, the Soldiers cleaned and sterilized the main avenues of Cairo, the capital.
These scenes were sometimes accompanied by national anthems and waving flags.
Patriotism and patriarchy
In this warlike context, heroes and villains are defined by those who obey the orders of the State.
While health professionals are considered “heroes,” those who do not follow the government's mandate – often poor people who cannot afford to stay home – are singled out as villains, if not traitors.
In Tunisia, a Health representative from the city of Tataouine, following the report of a new case of COVID-19 in his district, declared that “we are at war, and those who do not accept it are traitors.” In a speech about food shortages and price inflation that have fueled public anger, Tunisian President Saied called the food grabbers “war criminals.”
The media have also spread the call for war and sacrifice with strong messages that mobilize and convince the population to follow orders.
With the discourse, sometimes childish, which uses fear rather than the intention to educate, citizens are required to stay at home.
In April 2020, the Tunisian presenter of a talk show called “Adhak Maana” (“Laugh with us”), broadcast on Attessia TV, repeated the words:
“It is for your own good.… If you behave yourself well and stay home, you will be able to go out as you used to.”
“It is for their own good … If they behave well and stay home, they will be able to leave as they did before.”
Most of the region's television channels have presented the new motto “stay at home” as a patriotic duty. Citizens are encouraged to participate in this “war effort” by observing and reporting offenders.
In Tunisia, authorities created toll-free numbers and social media platforms to report noncompliance with government orders.
This war story has created a climate of “gathering around the flag” where people join their supposedly strong and determined leaders. The war analogy draws on a manly imagination starring male heroism, and in which women – which represent the majority of professional careers and key workers – they are secondary.
War is divisive. Is the pandemic a “war”?
The analogy leads to condescension, alarming language, and tones that generate division and stigmatization during the COVID-19 crisis. It also pits each other off instead of creating a sense of civic responsibility and solidarity.
In Tunisia, fear of the virus has caused extreme behavior, recently prompted by the burial of COVID-19 victims. Some local communities they denied burials for fear of contaminating the land. The authorities, with the support of the Army, intervened and insisted that there was no risk of transmission of the bodies.
Using warlike language to respond to the health emergency is not only unproductive, but also potentially damages the social fabric.
Citizens of Syria, Yemen or Libya also know all too well what war means: chaos and destruction. Many citizens around the world are now raising their voices to deal with this aggressive wave.
In an unusual televised speech, the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated:
No, this pandemic is not a war. Nations do not oppose other nations nor soldiers against other soldiers. It is a test of our humanity. … (This crisis) brings out the best and the worst of people. Let us show others what is best in us.
No, this pandemic is not a war. No nation opposes another, nor do soldiers fight against others. It is a test of our humanity. … (This crisis) brings out the best and worst in people. Let us show others the best that is in us.