Soldiers with masks fighting in Tripoli, Libya

Shortage of masks and respirators, lack of hospital space, muddled government action: inadequate responses to the COVID-19 outbreak are evident even in the world's most stable countries. So what happens when the virus arrives in places already under the weight of war?

Yemen: Given the ongoing stalemate, many had hoped Saudi Arabia would take the opportunity of the global pandemic to cut its losses, and pull out of Yemen altogether. The first coronavirus case was recorded in Yemen this week, coinciding with Saudi Arabia announcing a ceasefire with the Houthi rebels. Yet Houthi forces were wary of the truce and broke the ceasefire within in 48 hours, according to the Saudi-backed coalition fighting to restore Yemen's former government. For Yemeni civilians stuck between war and illness, half the UN's aid in the country will shut down due to a funding crisis caused by a withdrawal from donors such as the United States earlier this year.

Syria: So far, COVID-19's toll in the war-ravaged nation are only 2 deaths and 19 confirmed cases, but testing for the virus is woefully lacking. As 70% of healthcare workers left at the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the population has already been vulnerable to poor health for nearly a decade. Al Jazeera reports that social distancing is nearly impossible in displacement camps in Idlib, the last province held by the rebels.

Ukraine: The arrival of the virus did nothing to quiet the war between Kiev and Russian separatists in Donbass. With around 30 soldiers killed and 85 injured, March was one of the deadliest months on the front since the conflict started six years ago, according to Courrier International. And since April began? Ukraine has registered more than 3700 coronavirus cases and 107 deaths, but also 66 attacks from separatist forces.

Raising awareness in Syria — Photo: Moawia Atrash/ZUMA

Libya: Though only 26 cases have been recorded, the United Nations fears a potential outbreak spreading as military operations continue to ravage the country, with civilians trapped amid the clashes. Libya may be unable to cope with an outbreak as hospitals and clinics, damaged during the conflict, are already struggling with large numbers of victims of the fighting. "This is a health system that was close to collapse before you get the coronavirus', Elizabeth Hoff, head of mission for the WHO in Libya, told Reuters.

Sahel: The northern African region has been subjected to terrorist attacks since 2012. Entire areas in Mali have been cut off from state services, because of jihadist insurgencies and intercommunity conflicts, reports Le Monde, while fears are rising for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in packed camps across Sahel. "If we have coronavirus here, it will be a catastrophe," a man living in one of the three camps outside Mali's capital Bamako told The North Africa Journal. People living in these camps have been advised to use turbans as face masks, as protective gear is scarce.


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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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