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Virus changes Gulf habits; Arabs treat panic with humor

RIYADH: A waiter wearing a mask serves a Saudi family at a restaurant along Tahlia Street in the center of the Saudi capital yesterday. – AFP

DUBAI: No shisha pipe sessions, deserted streets, mosques and shopping malls, drones in the sky broadcasting public health warnings – the new coronavirus has turned life upside down in Gulf societies. More than 800 cases of the COVID-19 have been recorded so far across the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but so far no deaths. Most of those infected have been people returning from nearby Iran, where more than 700 people had died in the outbreak by yesterday.

Facing a mounting public health threat, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman have taken drastic measures to combat the pandemic. “It is as if today is the weekend and not the start of the week,” Amal Al-Hashem, a Dubai resident of 15 years, told AFP on a largely deserted street yesterday, the start of the week in the Gulf.

Kuwait has taken the strictest measures in the GCC by largely locking down the country over the weekend, the only nation other than Italy to do so. Kuwait City’s main airport road was empty as all commercial flights to and from the nation were suspended. Drones in the skies were sounding messages in multiple languages urging people to return to their homes.

In Qatar’s capital Doha, the usually bustling market in the heart of the tourist center was eerily quiet, while Riyadh’s shopping district also lay barren. The Gulf countries have shut down cinemas and other entertainment centers – some even closing gyms and spas – as well as halting one of the region’s favorite pastimes, smoking shisha in cafes.

Residents in the Omani capital of Muscat told AFP there had been much “fear and panic” over what many of them have termed “corona phobia” at a time when a small bottle of disinfectant is in almost everyone’s pockets or bags. They said many people have stopped shaking hands or kissing each other on the cheeks, a common greeting across the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia, 60-year-old Abu Abdulrahman said he felt awkward about the rapidly changing social norms. “Do I shake hands and kiss or do I not? I don’t know,” he said. “I try not to do that, but I get embarrassed. What if the other person puts their hand out first?”

Meanwhile, both the UAE and Qatar have advised their citizens to stop the traditional “nose to nose” greeting, with Abu Dhabi instructing residents that a wave would suffice. Measures to combat the spread of the virus have also impacted the way many Muslims in the Gulf worship. After Saudi Arabia suspended the “umrah” year-round pilgrimage, it advised residents against praying in mosques if they have any symptoms of the virus.

Kuwait took additional steps and banned all mass prayers, an unprecedented move in a country where hundreds of thousands pray side-by-side every day. “Pray at home, pray at home,” an imam preached in a recording that went viral on social media on Saturday. In the Sunni Muslim-dominated Gulf, there are hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims, many of whom travel to Iran regularly for pilgrimages. Despite ongoing tensions between some GCC countries and Tehran, there have been no reports of heightened social friction between the different sects.

This comes amid Saudi Arabia’s decision to cordon off the mainly Shiite district of Qatif, where the majority of coronavirus cases were reported. “This is a time for unity locally, regionally and globally,” Zainab Abdul Amir, a Bahraini parliamentarian, told AFP. “There is no room for hatred, anger, discrimination or sectarianism.”

Meanwhile, the Arab world has looked to laughter to counter the worst of the fear and speculation swirling around the coronavirus pandemic. Among the treatments are a TV show starring coronavirus as guest of honor, a parody COVID-19 Twitter account, and song and dance designed to lampoon the panic over the illness. From Egypt to Iraq and the Gulf to Tunisia, satirical hot takes have spread almost as fast as the virus across a region where authorities have resorted to increasingly draconian containment measures.

“What do you say to all the people who are scared of you?” an Egyptian television presenter asked an actor wearing a green virus costume. “Wash your hands and sneeze away from others!” commands the character with a grotesque green face mask studded with spikes to mimic the coronavirus cell. On Al-Hayah, a popular commercial channel, the coronavirus complains of “unjust treatment” because of widespread “exaggeration”, accusing social media of hyping the epidemic’s severity and calling on viewers to follow basic hygiene rules. “Stay clean, is it that hard?” he asked with a broad Egyptian accent. The interview, described by the host as “extraordinary”, has spread like wildfire on Arabic social media.

Online in the Arab world, the new coronavirus has spawned social media parodies harnessing pop-culture GIFs and memes to prick po-faced attitudes to the outbreak. One such Twitter account has gone viral, attracting over 60,000 followers. “The new coronavirus denies rumors concerning the existence of a health ministry in Egypt,” said one tweet earlier this month at which point the authorities had yet to report a confirmed case, raising questions about their transparency.

A video of “Masks, we don’t have them” sung in an Iraqi dialect has also swept the web. The singers berate the dearth of masks in the country where the price of those that are available has shot up. Lebanese and Jordanians sporting scrubs and masks have also taken to singing to break the tension caused by virus fears. In North Africa, a young Tunisian has written a song with a message – featuring harmonized hygiene tips. In a calm voice set to guitar music, the singer intones the “necessity of masks and disinfectant gel”.

In the Arab world, sarcastic or good-natured humor can sometimes stray into what might be considered racist territory. On one YouTube channel, an Egyptian “electro-shaabi” singer has racked up 3.5 million views of a clip in which he wonders aloud over popular street music why the Chinese eat bats and dogs. Saudi oil giant Aramco faced racism allegations online after a photo emerged of a South Asian man wearing a hand sanitizer dispensing sandwich board, apparently at one of the company’s sites. Aramco distanced itself from the images.

In the neighboring United Arab Emirates, police have warned that making jokes or spreading rumors about the virus could lead to legal action, a pro-government newspaper reported. But in Kuwait, where authorities have enforced some of the strictest containment measures including the suspension of all inbound and outbound passenger flights, keyboard warriors have delighted in creating and sharing memes referencing dystopian sci-fi films. – AFP

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