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How the fragile health care systems of the Middle East are bracing for COVID-19

The number of coronavirus cases in the Middle East has risen to nearly 60,000, doubling in a single week. Governments in the region are scrambling to try to prevent the virus' spread, knowing that their fragile health care systems stand little chance against a disease that has overwhelmed the world's most medically advanced countries. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of coronavirus cases in the Middle East has risen to nearly 60,000, double the amount only a week ago.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut on how already fragile health care systems are bracing themselves against the pandemic.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Another victim of the coronavirus limps out of his apartment building.

    Lebanese Red Cross volunteers have dressed him in protective clothing to keep the disease from spreading. His elderly mother is not allowed go with him.

    "That's my son, my son," she tells us. "They took him to the hospital before and let him go again. Maybe — maybe they know something I don't know."

    It is very likely she's carrying the virus. We cannot stay and hear her story or offer any comfort. She is left behind in the street, watching helpless.

    The Lebanese Red Cross is the only option for people here when they need an ambulance. The country's health care system doesn't provide the service. These first responders are more vital now than ever.

  • Shawk al Shawki:

    Most of our volunteers are recruited because they genuinely believe in this mission and they believe in the principles that are part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, these being humanity, impartiality, independence, neutrality, and voluntary service.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Circling the skies above Beirut, soldiers in Lebanese army helicopters warn people by loudspeaker to stay indoors.

    Lebanon reacted to the pandemic quickly, beginning a phased shutdown five weeks ago. Now there is a nightly curfew, and during the day people are only really allowed out to buy food or medicine. The country's strict, early lockdown was in reaction to the certainty that Lebanon's health care system wouldn't cope with a pandemic.

    Decades of corruption and a financial crisis that just bankrupted the government have left the authorities here with little choice but to try preventing the spread of the disease as much as possible.

  • Georges Ghanem:

    And maybe it will have an impact on the flow and the curve of the epidemic in Lebanon. It will help us certainly to flatten a little bit the curve. We don't know exactly now, in this present situation, how much we will flatten the curve. But it helped us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Georges Ghanem is the head doctor at the Lebanese American University Hospital. His colleagues are racing to prepare for an expected spike of cases this week, according to medical forecasts.

    They have sent other patients home and canceled elective surgeries. The hope here is that the lockdown will help save lives where hospitals can't.

    Across the Middle East, hospitals like this are bracing for an onslaught of COVID-19 patients. They know their health care systems will not be able to cope. And so they are trying to scramble as quickly as they can.

    In Jordan, the lockdown was the strictest seen in the region. All cars have been banned from the roads, with military checkpoints to reinforce the new rules.

    For the first few days, they blocked anyone from leaving their homes, even for food, threatening up to a year in jail for anyone caught in the streets. Now people are allowed out only on foot to buy groceries.

    But not every country in the Middle East is capable of this. For the 27 million people living in war-ravaged Yemen, survival has been a daily struggle for years. With no testing, there is no realistic way of knowing if the country has any coronavirus cases or how widespread it is.

    Syria is another country with a health care system ravaged by war and millions displaced from their homes. Bashar al-Assad's government says there has been just one death so far linked to COVID-19. The country's years-long diplomatic isolation may be helping it right now.

    But aid agencies have been struggling to deal with a humanitarian disaster in the northeast province of Idlib for months, where millions fleeing the Assad army's advance are crammed into camps. It's not known if the virus has a presence there, but refugees in the camps know the living conditions mean it would surely spread quickly.

  • Mohammed al-Dibo (through translator):

    If all these big countries have failed in confronting this disease, what can we do against it? What can we do, where powerful countries have failed?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Egypt's ancient pyramids lit up with social distancing messages on Tuesday night. Cairo is a city of 20 million people, and known for its nightlife, but it's been under nighttime curfew for over a week.

  • Mohamed el-Gabaly (through translator):

    This is a disease. It's no joke. People must stay at home and not leave their homes after curfew hours.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Egypt's dictatorship expelled a British journalist for reporting that the number of cases in the country is likely much higher than the official figures.

    In Iraq, the religious site of Karbala, one of the most sacred in Shia Islam, has been closed and disinfected. But it may be too late to prevent the spread. The country's struggling health care system is ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic.

    Israel's health minister, Yaakov Litzman, has tested positive for COVID-19. He has been in close contact in recent weeks with embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are now in quarantine.

    The country has over 6,000 known cases so far, and the military has been brought in to help enforce a strict lockdown.

    Micky Rosenfeld is the spokesman for Israel's police.

  • Micky Rosenfeld:

    Our units are making sure that people are at home, are only at a maximum radius of a hundred of meters from any given area at any one given time.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Ancient religious sites in Jerusalem, like the Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, have been disinfected, while testing has been ramped up, with drive-through tests now available. Yet the virus is ravaging Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

  • Menahem Roitenbarg:

    It's very hard for us, because normally here in this city we are always together, and we are like the community.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For the most part, people in the Middle East are taking the threat posed by COVID-19 seriously and complying with social distancing.

    Mosques, synagogues, and churches are all closed. Watching the virus ravage advanced and well-equipped health care systems in the West, many here know their only hope is the prevention of the spread, rather than relying on overstretched or underfunded hospitals.

  • Georges Ghanem:

    We in the Middle East are used to live in crisis mode. This is not the case of the Western countries. They are in a more comfort zone, where everything is assured and everything is here by the government.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.

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