AJCS seminar draws lessons from first wave of coronavirus pandemic ahead of the second

Top left to right: Mustafa al-Wahaib, Abdessattar Rejeb and Khalid Shams Al-Abdulqader; bottom left to right: Hayat Elyamani, Hmoud Al-Olimat and Hazem Ayyad. [Al Jazeera]

A joint seminar was held on 27 July 2020 by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and the Strategic Thinking Group Association in Turkey in collaboration with Al Jazeera Mubasher to discuss the possible implications of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, concluding that a second wave was likely especially in the upcoming autumn and winter. In addition, speakers suggested that the second wave will not be more aggressive than the first due to the experience states have gained in combatting it and the awareness of individuals and societies of how to protect themselves.

Participants argued that the negative effects of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on the world’s economies would be less devastating than the effects of the first due to countries’ orientation away from complete isolation and closing borders and towards gradual and partial management of the pandemic, the lesson a number of countries learned regarding self-sufficiency in commodities and basic necessities, further investment in the health sector, and the importance of coordination and cooperation at the regional and international levels to alleviate the impact of the pandemic.

Also, panellists indicated that they do not expect the second wave to strengthen inter-Arab relations, facilitate the resolution of political disputes and conflicts, or establish the kind of cooperation shown by the leaders of European Union member countries and their initiative to revive their economy with 7.5 billion euros. The panellists attributed this to the fact that most Arab countries are ruled by totalitarian regimes whose main concern is their own interests, not the interests of their states or peoples.

Finally, the seminar emphasised that conditions in the Arab world will not improve whether in terms of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic or other future pandemics as long as the authorities retain more power than the society, and control and prevent it from developing, and that public interest necessitates that civil society institutions become independent – like they were when Arab-Islamic civilisation was at its peak – until society can maintain its cohesion and contribution regardless of the weakness or strength of the ruling regime.

The seminar was took place online under the title, “The Possibilities of a Second Wave of the Coronavirus Pandemic and Means of Confrontation,” and with the participation of: Mustafa al-Wahaib, Executive Director of the Anadolu Center of Near East Studies (AYAM); Hazem Ayyad, Researcher at the Strategic Thinking Group Association; Hmoud Al-Olimat, Professor of Sociology at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies; Abdessattar Rejeb, Professor of Sociology at the University of Carthage in Tunisia; Khalid Shams Al-Abdulqader, Former Dean of College of Business and Economics and Vice President of the Community College of Qatar; and Hayat Elyamani, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter, as moderator.

Economic lessons

Dr. Khalid Shams Al-Abdulqader, Vice President of the Community College of Qatar, commenced the seminar with a presentation in which he discussed the economic implications of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic on the world in general and the Arab region in particular. He indicated that the economic crisis resulting from the spread of the coronavirus, and the infection of 16 million people and death of 650,000 people, had dangerous implications such as greater deficits in state budgets, a decline in incomes, a halt in economic and commercial activity, higher rates of unemployment, an increase in poverty, and higher levels of public debt. Arab countries, particularly those that produce oil, face further difficulty due to the decline of oil prices as a result of decreased demand, increased supply and price speculation. This has caused a drop in these countries’ revenues and prompted them to take decisive action and undergo restructuring and reduce labor and costs, which had painful repercussions for both them and the countries that rely on remittances from their migrant workers.

Al-Abdulqader predicted that the economic implications of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic will be less severe than the first and attributed that to the lessons countries learned from the latter and their future orientation away from the complete shutdown of borders and the imposition of total isolation and towards gradual and partial management of the pandemic while maintaining the cycle of production, distribution and consumption.

Furthermore, he suggested that many of the greater industrial countries that rely on factories in foreign lands for their production, especially in China and other East Asian countries because of cheap labour, are now reconsidering this policy. He explained that “20% of these factories have started returning to their countries of origin because governments have realised that the existence of these factories within their borders will spare them the interruption of production and distribution seen during the first wave after borders were closed.”

Regarding how Arab countries dealt with the first wave and his evaluation of how they may deal with the second, Al-Abdulqader maintained that: “The Arab world was not active or influential in the global economy during the first wave because its contribution to global production and commerce is very small. Therefore, it is not expected to be influential in the second wave either.” He pointed out that what exacerbated the pandemic for Arab countries and peoples is their lack of cooperation. There is no fund under the Arab League, for example, to alleviate the implications of this crisis like that of the European Union and its economic initiative of 7.5 billion euros. He attributed this lack of Arab cooperation in combatting the pandemic to the aggravation of disputes between regimes and the inability of this pandemic, despite the severity of its impact and implications, to bring them together.

Al-Abdulqader also stressed the necessity of learning from the pandemic by focusing on production, the provision of basic necessities and vital supplies, the achievement of self-sufficiency, dedicating special attention to the health sector in order for it to be able to protect and cure, and investment in production and distribution especially after we all realised how important they are and how critical their interruption is. All of this is in addition to the necessity of diversifying Arab economies, adaptation after the return of migrant industries at a global level, increased interest in e-commerce, the importance of Arab countries’ reconsideration of disputes and rapprochement in aims of forming a common vision of dealing with the pandemic, and the establishment of a unified Arab fund for the relief of the pandemic’s current and future effects and implications.

Acquired habits

For his part, Dr. Abdessattar Rejeb, Professor of Sociology at the University of Carthage in Tunisia, chose in his presentation to focus on the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic in both the individual and the society around the world and in the Arab region. In this regard, he revealed that a change occurred in humans’ awareness of the importance of cleanliness because of the pandemic and fear of contagion. Thus, this awareness, which has become daily behaviour, will become a habit; and that can be observed clearly whether in the first wave or the expected second wave.

Rejeb pointed out that the world cannot endure the policy of isolation it imposed out of fear of contagion for long. Hence, after a few months, precautionary restrictions have begun to lessen whether because the spread of the pandemic has subsided; because individuals, societies and states have decided to co-exist with and adapt to it; or under the pressure of economists and owners of capital.

He also mentioned that the pandemic revealed the fragility of many countries and societies and exposed the weakness of their health systems and inability to deal with health disasters of this magnitude. It also exposed the selfishness some countries, including those of the European Union, showed towards others in the first few months of the crisis.

As it pertains to the Arab world, Rejeb said, “the coordination and cooperation among Arab countries was either non-existent or minimal at best. Disputes between Arab regimes and states remained; and the pandemic, despite its dangerous implications, could not bring about rapprochement, cooperation, and solidarity.” He predicted that the second wave will be no different from the first, explaining that change in the Arab world has to come from the bottom up through the peoples after regimes and authorities proved unable to achieve it.

At the end of his presentation, Rejeb called on Arab elites to contribute more to education, culture and awareness to help individuals and societies progress until states, regimes and institutions can improve.

A changing world

Hazem Ayyad, Researcher at the Strategic Thinking Group Association in Turkey, however, showed in his presentation that the Arab region followed the greater and more influential forces that control production and distribution in the world, especially the United States, the European Union, China and other Asian countries, in the first wave. This is because Arab countries are consumer countries that do not contribute to global production significantly; and therefore, they are expect to remain ineffectual satellite countries.

Ayyad presented different examples of how Arab countries dealt with the crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting that, despite the variations, they all seemed to show individualism and that each country appeared to be looking to relieve only itself. He also asserted that if there had been coordination and cooperation, the crisis could have been less severe for everyone. To prove this, he demonstrated how the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab Maghreb Union managed the implications of the pandemic and how that management appeared absent when it was most needed. The reason behind this, he explained, is the political disputes, wars and conflicts between them whose repercussions the pandemic was unable to stop or lessen.

Finally, he concluded his presentation by stating that the post-coronavirus word is heading towards further polarisation, as currently indicated by China and the United States, and that the Arab world is still unprepared for the change resulting from the pandemic in the means of production, the chains of distribution, and the transfer of factories to their countries of origin after globalisation had made for their establishment in foreign lands. He asserted that unless the Arab countries become proactive and make initiatives for their own present and future, they will always be subject to the current conflicts between regional and international powers.

Repressed societies

Dr. Hmoud Al-Olimat, Professor of Sociology at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, shed light on the social effects of the pandemic whether in the first wave or in the second. He pointed out that the pandemic revealed the importance of focusing on basic necessities such as food, drink, health, and protection and the steering away from luxuries promoted by advertisers that exhaust the financial resources of individuals and societies. He also suggested the Arab countries’ poor management of the implications of the coronavirus proves the necessity of easing restrictions imposed on societies so that they may do their part and make initiatives. Moreover, he asserted that the feature most prominent in the Arab and Islamic civilisation during its era of prosperity was “the strength of the society vis-à-vis the authorities,” and that the civilisation began to decline when “society began to weaken and the authorities strengthened, rendering the former subservient to the latter.” In this context, he called for the separation of social work from politics to avoid the concern of the authorities and in order for social work to bring about the desired advancement in the community.

Al-Olimat emphasised the importance of the return of Arab families to their traditional morals and values and Arab societies to an era in which they were producers, not consumers, and owned their own tools of production, rendering them independent in their provision of the necessities of life. This, he said, “will decrease the severity of moral and material poverty all over the Arab world.”

To conclude his presentation, he alluded to the necessity of states’ change of priorities in public budgets and shifting towards agriculture, education, healthcare and preventative medicine, and awareness in aims of improving the behaviours and morals of citizens.

Methodological rules

Mustafa al-Wahaib, Executive Director of the Anadolu Center of Near East Studies (AYAM), did not stray in his presentation from the presentations of the previous panellists, and alluded to the disturbance that resulted from international and domestic treatment of the pandemic. “This disturbance is still prominent in many countries, including those of the Arab world, until this very day; hence, we can expect the same conditions in the second wave of the coronavirus in these countries in the upcoming days,” he said.

Al-Wahaib listed the facets of this disturbance, arguing that the decisions to impose quarantines and curfews, for example, have yet to be studied scientifically and methodologically to find out just how effective they are in curbing the spread of the virus.

He also talked about the marginalised groups in Arab countries that were most affected by the pandemic including Asian migrant workers in Gulf states. He disclosed that in some countries, they were a source of contagion, which signifies the urgency of providing them with more care and attention and a health structure that is able to treat large numbers of people with competence especially in terms of communication.

Al-Wahaib concluded his presentation by affirming the importance of setting methodological rules for precautionary measures and having digital and quantitative indicators that prove the effectiveness of decisions pertaining to these measures. He also warned the Arab countries of leaving the responsibility of co-existing with the virus to the average citizen and avoiding their own responsibilities. “If this approach is established in the future, the implications of the second wave will be more dangerous than those of the first.”