Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in MENA - Statistics & Facts

As of May, almost 360 thousand people within the MENA region have been infected by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2). The first positively tested coronavirus (COVID-19) case in the Middle East and North Africa occurred in the United Arab Emirates back in late January 2020. This global pandemic added another strain on the already politically and economically struggling region. The lack of transparency and underreporting of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases cost some of the region’s governments’ precious time and opportunities to react swiftly and clamp down on the fast spreading disease.

An important characteristic of the distribution pattern of the coronavirus in the Middle East and North Africa is its rapid spread around places of worship, in pilgrimages, and in tightknit religious groups. The Israeli government reported a high proportion of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases amongst its ultra-orthodox communities. The first case of coronavirus contractions in Iran occurred at its pilgrim sight of Qom, after which it quickly spread throughout the country. Therefore, the government of Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented decision to close its holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This included the holy sights of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Grand Mosque of Mecca which houses the Kaaba, the most important sight of Muslim pilgrimage. International travelers for the minor pilgrimage ‘Umrah’ were also banned from entering the country. It is uncertain whether the main pilgrimage of “Hajj’, planned for July 2020, will take place. The Hajj is considered one of the largest gatherings of people in the world, with over two million people participating in recent years.

Among all Middle Eastern countries, Iran has experienced the most severe outbreak of the coronavirus, with over 136 thousand cases to date. Iran has had until the end of May 2020 one of the highest infection rates worldwide right behind China and Italy.

Iran was one of the worst hit countries in a global context. At times, the death rate from coronavirus (COVID-19) in Iran was 7.79 percent, only overtaken by Italy. After the deputy health minister of Iran, Iraj Harirchi, tested positive for coronavirus in February 2020, the Iranian government slowly had to accept that the threat for the country was more severe than earlier acknowledged. The government of Iran was accused of underreporting cases and undertesting at the beginning of the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has had to face another obstacle during this global health crisis. Due to sanctions established by the United States government, Iran has struggled to obtain coronavirus diagnostic kits.
Besides Iran, the spread of the coronavirus across Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt has been very high.

The coronavirus pandemic is already having a severe impact on Middle Eastern and North African economies and societies. The majority of the countries on the Arabian Peninsula are heavily reliant on oil revenues, so the drop in global oil demand due to the coronavirus outbreak will hit Gulf economies very hard.

A significant cross-section of Middle Eastern civil society considers the coronavirus a threat to their countries and therefore endorse closing their borders to control the spread of the disease. Travel restrictions have already negatively impacted the tourism-reliant economy of the United Arab Emirates and that of Saudi Arabia, which would normally receive a large amount of revenue from Islamic pilgrimages.

The initial cases of this global pandemic occurred for the first time in December 2019 in China, hence its official name: COVID-19. According to current knowledge, the coronavirus was transmitted from animals to people. This strand of COVID-19 can be traced back to a seafood market in the city of Wuhan in China, where its first cases emerged before it turned into a global pandemic.


To date, over 347 thousand people worldwide have died of this disease. Though the symptoms and severity of this infection can vary, it bears particular risk for elderly people and those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions.
Therefore, whilst a majority of infected people might just experience slight cold or light flu like symptoms, others may end up with pneumonia, multi-organ failure or other life-threatening complications. People who do not yet show any symptoms could unknowingly transmit this disease to people in their surroundings. The implementation of social distancing, self-isolation, cancellation of mass gatherings and a general minimization of social interaction are precautions now taken by a majority of countries to minimize the spread of this airborne disease.

For further information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, please visit our dedicated Fact and Figures page.

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