Coronavirus News Asia

Mideast’s most valuable resource, social bonds, at risk

The coronavirus storm is coming to the Middle East. Since it has already passed through several countries, the impact is predictable, if incalculable: empty streets, widespread economic damage and thousands of deaths. However, there will also come another crisis, one that will unfold hidden away behind closed doors: the gradual fraying of bonds of family and friendship.

Across the Middle East, these social bonds are taken very seriously. The regular – many would say too regular – rituals of large family dinners, majlises, weddings and celebrations stitch together the fabric of daily life. They pull together communities of people; indeed, through their reach along lines of family, clan and region, these extended social bonds make up the most resilient aspect of Arab and Middle East societies.

All of that, along with the hand-holding, cheek-kissing, close proximity and easy familiarity of Arab life must now temporarily come to a halt.

Long periods of enforced social isolation are difficult wherever you are, particularly when there is no clear end in sight. Restrictions are already being imposed in every country in the region. As the virus spreads and the death toll rises – as it inevitably and tragically will – those restrictions will only increase. That will mean more social distancing, more working from home, long periods without the punctuation and concomitant release of social events.

But in the Middle East, such city-wide lockdowns and social distancing will be especially difficult because of the role that social bonds play. For a start, almost everywhere in the region, social bonds function as the default safety net for the whole of society, regardless of how wide the state-provided social safety net is.

The immediate consequences of widespread social isolation will be felt by older and more vulnerable citizens, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled. These groups often rely on friends or neighbors for company and help with daily tasks, as economic migration has taken their immediate family, their sons and daughters, to cities far away.

In areas as far apart as the Atlas Mountains, the rural villages in Egypt and the crowded apartment blocks of Lebanon, social bonds are a lifeline for those who do not have the rhythm of work to keep them safe, sane and socially involved. A widespread lockdown will affect them first and most.

It will also exacerbate mental-health issues just at a time when wars and huge social upheavals have made mental health one of the most serious but disguised issues in the region.

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