On the Front Line - GulfToday

On the Front Line

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


People from all walks of life who have joined the campaign are being recognised as “first responders.”

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;/... any man’s death diminishes me,/because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom/the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.“

Written in the 17th century by the English soldier, poet and parliamentarian John Donne while struggling with a near fatal illness, these words have very special meaning at this frightening and taxing time of pandemic.

Although governments across the world have faltered and failed to contain the latest plague to afflict mankind as a whole, some of those still struggling with the virus are stepping up to provide aid for victims at epicentres of infection and death. Scores of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and thousands of individuals are joining the fight as best they can.

China is very proactive, perhaps, because of a feeling of responsibility as the virus emerged in Wuhan province. Having largely contained the virus, Beijing has dispatched doctors and masks, gowns, ventilators and other supplies to Italy, France, Spain, Cyprus, Serbia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Algeria, the Philippines and Cambodia. Despite anti-China comments from Donald Trump, Beijing has donated 1,000 ventilators to New York, the US virus hub.

China is not alone in sending doctors to Italy, the original European epicentre recently overtaken by Spain. Famed for deploying medical staff on front lines, Cuba early on dispatched teams of its professionals to Italy. Somalia, Poland, Albania and Russia have also sent doctors and essential supplies.

The “America First” Trump administration has adopted an isolationist island approach. It has offered aid to two countries only — both antagonists — and was rebuffed by Iran and ignored by North Korea. Their populations are suffering mightily from US sanctions. Instead of being helpful to others, the current occupant of the White House Donald Trump banned the sales and export of coronavirus related material. His administration even seized masks and medical supplies destined for France, Canada and Germany manufactured in China by a US company.

A host of non-governmental and charitable organisations have raised funds and provided advice and supplies to countries in need. Doctors Without Borders was on hand in Italy, Hong Kong, Spain, France, Belgium and Iran while Doctors of the World has posted advice on the internet on how to deal with the virus in 36 languages.

Chinese billionaire businessmen Jack Ma and Joe Tsai have donated millions of face masks, ventilators and protective gear to European, Asian and African countries and, despite Trump administration hostility toward China, to New York, the US epicentre of the disease.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established by the multibillionaire cofounder of Microsoft, has partnered with Wellcome Trust and Mastercard to tap the “expertise of pharmaceutical companies” and invest $125 million (Dhs459m) to “identify potential treatments for COVID-19, accelerate their development and prepare for the manufacture of millions of doses for use worldwide.” Last week entertainer Madonna joined the foundation to promote its efforts to find a drug that prevents infection from or cure COVID-19.

Facebook and Instagram have pledged $10m (Dhs37m) and are fundraising for the Centers for Disease Control Foundation established by Congress to aid US federal efforts to battle the virus.

The German NGO Sea-Eye’s rescue ship, named the “Alan Kurdi,” has returned to the Mediterranean to rescue migrants who are more determined than ever to make the risky journey from Libya to Europe.

In the Indian city of Bengaluru, Mahita Nagaraj contacted people on Facebook to ask if they needed help or could give help to get in touch. The response was overwhelming. She established Caremongers India, a group meant to “stop scaremongering and start caremongering.” Ms Nagaraj observed, “There is so much scaremongering in the current scenario. We are trying to address the feeling of helplessness in the people. We are telling people to stop spreading fear and panic, and instead spread love.” The group provides assistance to elderly and ailing people by matching those in need with local volunteers as well as by providing reassurance to frightened folk.

Museums have provided ammunition to the battle to keep people sane while isolated. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which opened in 1683, is conducting virtual tours of its vast Middle Eastern Islamic collection. The Guggenheim in New York and the Sursock Museum and the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation in Beirut have also launched virtual displays of their regional exhibitions. Alserkal art and design centre in Dubai has designed a show consisting of views of 15 galleries and the works of 80 artists.

The splendid Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has created a website of high resolution images of works of the 17th century masters Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer and the 19th century’s Vincent van Gogh. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris has put 120,000 items online in its cultural portal Altair. Individuals have assumed a major role in the war against COVID-19. Doctors, nurses and hospital staff are being cheered from balconies and windows in cities across the world for their life-saving dedication at the risk of their own lives. In New York City, 52 graduate doctors took their oath to serve early so they could joust with death by confronting the virus in wards.

As people from all walks of life have joined the campaign on all fronts, they are being recognised, along with medical professionals and pharmacists, as “first responders,” their services acknowledged and their social status raised. Bus, taxi and truck drivers, shop clerks, restaurant workers, farm labourers and delivery men and women have emerged from the shadows to be seen as essential for life under mass lockdown.

Restaurants barred from opening their premises to customers are feeding the poor for free and delivering meals to paying people locked up at home. Many customers continue to patronise favourite restaurants to help them survive. Supermarkets and neighbourhood grocery shops take and deliver orders to housebound seniors.

Men and women the world over are sewing masks at home to meet the demand for millions of these simple but essential protections. Celebrated authors are recording their books and musicians joining together in virtual performances and putting them online to be accessed by isolated children and adults.

There are, of course, millions of individuals whose kindnesses have touched those they honour. One lovely example was a young man who had a rose delivered to his mum on Mothers’ Day by a drone, giving her joy by means of a vehicle too often used in conflict to bomb and kill.


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