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'I want my life back'

April 11, 2020

How are people in the Middle East and North Africa dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic? Women from countries across the region, some of them war zones, share their worries — and hopes.

People wear masks in Beit Jala on the West Bank
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/M. Bader

Amal Yarisi (28), journalist in Sanaa, Yemen

"I live in a war-torn country where the health system is on its knees, and many people have weak immunity. Of course all of this scares me. So many people are already sick here — cholera, diphtheria and many other diseases can't be treated here. We don't even have the capacity to test people for the coronavirus. In the laboratories staff are not well- enough trained to identify the virus. So we don't even know how many infections there are.

Amal Yarisi, a journalist in Sanaa
Amal Yarisi lives in Sanaa, YemenImage: Privat

In a country at war, the possibilities for containing a virus like this are very slim. We don't have a lockdown either — most people are day laborers and have to work. If the pandemic spreads, I fear the worst. A lot of people will die here."

Loreen Msallam (37), economist in Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories

"This is really no easy situation, and I am worried. If the situation does get worse, the medical system won't cope. I see how it's going in other countries that have better health systems than we have here. We also wonder how long we will be under lockdown. Our lives have come to a standstill. At the same time, I'm quite proud of how the Palestinian Authority has dealt with it. It closed everything straight away and imposed a lockdown. That probably worked well because we are already familiar with lockdowns, which have been imposed on us by Israeli governments. So it's nothing new for us to stay at home. But this situation is different. How long is it going to last?

Loreen Msallam sits on a balcony at night in Bethlehem
Loreen Msallam says Palestinians are used to lockdownsImage: Privat

What also worries us is that Palestinians who work as day laborers in Israel are all going to be sent back to the West Bank — untested. There are fears that many of them could already be infected because there have already seen cases like this. Altogether, 45,000 workers are coming back. The Palestinian Authority is preparing for it, wants to quarantine some of them, but that won't work for many people. I hope this is over quickly — I want my life back!"

Faten Jebai (28), Lebanese video journalist and media trainer in Doha, Qatar

"I arrived in Doha and was in my new job for just five days when I had to go into quarantine. It's been a challenge: I haven't even been able to get to know the city that I now live in. Being in Doha also means that at least I have more financial security than in Lebanon — at least that's my impression. In Lebanon, both the economy and healthcare systems are in bad shape, so I'm really worried about my family.

Faten Jebai
Faten Jebai only leaves the apartment to buy groceriesImage: Privat

"Fortunately, Doha isn't as densely populated, and it stopped public transport and air travel early on. Even so, I look out the window, and there are still people driving to work, and construction sites are still working. I think Qatar should be stricter with these things.

Read more: Coronavirus: Arab uprisings struggle amid lockdowns

"But this uncertainty, not knowing what will happen, is getting on my nerves. I'm still working, but of course I don't know how long that will last. I'm a freelancer and the media industry will also experience cutbacks. I'm hoping for a scientific miracle that will end this nightmare soon."

Deema Deeb Abu Dalo (26), graduate architecture student in Amman, Jordan

"I'm thankful that I'm healthy and have enough space to quarantine myself. I have everything I need — masks, gloves and disinfectant — but in the poorer areas not everyone has been provided for and prices have risen sharply.

Deema Deeb Abu Dalo at home in Amman, Jordan
Deema Deeb Abu Dalo lives in Amman and is working toward a master's in architectureImage: Privat

"But I'm also worried. I haven't been allowed to leave the house for three weeks. I'm learning new design programs to keep myself busy and I'm currently doing a master's degree, so I'm not working. But I don't know how the quarantine will affect me mentally in the long run. I won't be able to handle it if it lasts several months — even if I think the lockdown that's been imposed is right and important.

But I want everyone to abide by the rules so we can get through this together sooner. Not everyone in Jordan is aware of the importance of staying at home. My country doesn't have the capacity to care for a lot of sick people, so they are focusing on prevention — that's good."

Sanaa [didn't want to give her surname] (43), NGO worker in Idlib, Syria

"We've lived through war since 2011. Everything is in short supply — water, work — many people live in tents. My husband, son and I live in a small apartment, but everything is expensive. We have to fill up the water tank regularly, otherwise even washing our hands isn't possible.

Sanaa from Idlib, Syria
Sanaa from Idlib worries that there will be no help if the virus spreadsImage: Privat

People aren't allowed to gather in public but everybody here lives from hand to mouth anyway, so people have to go out to earn some money. People try to disinfect their hands as much as possible when they go shopping or enter buildings, but we don't have enough masks, gloves or disinfectant. On top of that, there is no money: If forced to choose, people will take food over disinfectant. I'm worried the virus will spread here and the world will abandon us."

Selma Mahfoudh (38), translator in Tunis, Tunisia

"I am particularly worried about my mother, who lives in an area with poor medical care, but I'm also worried about my four-year-old twins. Tunisia's economy was already in a bad way before COVID-19. People who lived in poor conditions before will be even worse off after the pandemic.

Selmah Mahfoudh in Tunis
Selmah Mahfoudh works from house in normal times tooImage: Privat

Luckily, I have already been working from home for quite some time now, so things haven't changed much for me there. But I miss being able to take my girls to kindergarten. It isn't easy not being allowed to go out with them, but my husband and I cope with it together. I hope we don't have to live under lockdown much longer — I miss the sun and spending time with my family and friends."

Ghina Mansour (25), NGO worker in Batroun, Lebanon

"The situation is mentally stressful. All of life is concentrated on the internet, and most media don't feature anything beyond the coronavirus. You can't get away from it, and the focus is almost exclusively on negative things.

Ghina Mansour in her home in Lebanon
Ghina Mansour laments that the media hardly report on anything besides the coronavirusImage: Privat

"When I see that people in some parts of Lebanon don't take the lockdown restrictions seriously, it makes me even more worried. Because of that we'll have to live like this for even longer. I work for a human rights organization, and I see a lot of suffering. Our government has taken the same measures that other countries have — the difference is that Lebanon slips from one crisis into the next, and we were already facing national bankruptcy before the coronavirus. Economic aid for people in need is hardly possible here."

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