Covid challenges in the Arab World: PSI affiliates share experiences

While the Arab world was already witnessing multidimensional crises taking the form of conflicts, wars, economic and social inequalities, the COVID 19 pandemic came to worsen the situation and to expose the scarcity of the public health sector. Millions of workers have been laid-off and the unemployment rate is expected to increase by 1.2%

To describe more deeply the situation, and to share the challenges and the good practices in terms of ensuring quality health services accessible to all, including the access to the vaccines, social protection, and occupational safety and health for women workers, PSI in collaboration with its affiliates in the Arab world organized a webinar on April 8th, 2021, bringing together 74 participants (37 women, 37 men).

The pandemic has not hit people in the same way everywhere in the world” said Rosa Pavanelli, PSI General Secretary, in the opening session, after welcoming the participants gathered to share their challenges but also their initiatives in the Arab world. “While the poorer are suffering from accessing to public services and in their working conditions, the rich became richer”, she continued. To face the situation at the global level PSI built strong alliances with its partners such as the International Labor Organization and with the World health Organization and other Global Union Federations and partners. PSI conducted and joined many campaigns to support workers in the care sector, especially women, to improve their conditions and their participation in the labor market. PSI is demanding that the Corona virus, be considered as one of the occupational diseases for health workers in particular and public services in general. It is time to rethink the welfare system, to provide better services, and to restore care services, to municipalities. PSI was the first on 28th March to raise the issue of the WTO TRIPS waiver to ensure equal and fair access to vaccines, and in order to prevent the spread of the virus and contain waves of its changing patterns. PSI also is engaged in a campaign on tax justice to ensure tax fairness at the international level by reforming the global tax system so that major companies are required to pay 25% of their profits.

Sani Baba Mohammed, PSI Regional Secretary for Africa and Arab countries, in his speech, addressed the role of PSI in the regional engagement and mobilization in the Africa and Arab region. PSI has built a strong network with partners who share PSI values, goals and visions in terms of raising health awareness and support. PSI Africa and Arab countries is working in close cooperation with governmental bodies where PSI has affiliates, such as ministries and agencies in order to find together the adequate solutions to the problems the ministries of health are facing and provide the necessary support, as well as to face the challenges that medical teams face in dealing with the pandemic. It is to note that PSI is the only representative in many regional ministerial meetings to defend workers' rights.

From Tunisia, Nawfel Rhayem, on behalf of the General federation of workers in the Public health presented the challenges faced by the health sector in terms of financial resources, lack of availability of basic medical equipment and maintenance, as well as the challenges due to the shortage of medical staff compensated by fragile contracts to reduce wage allocations based on the directives of the World Bank. He concluded that a special legislation is needed for the health sector, and a speed up of the administrative procedures slowed by the centralization.

From Jordan, Mohammed Ghanem, president of the General trade union of workers in the medical and pharmaceutical services, shared with the participants the good practices carried out by the union to respond to the pandemic, in terms of ensuring protection equipment, and sustainability at work. Collective agreements have been signed with different parties. He finally the dual discourse of the World bank: while calling for the introduction of social equality, in fact it is imposing a downturn of the public spending in vital public services like health and education.

Mr. Wael Sarhan, president of the Egyptian Ambulance workers Syndicate, Egypt, indicated the numbers of victims among medical teams. He, as well referred to the challenges the union is facing such as discrimination in the treatment of ambulance workers in terms of salary increase, whereas other medical sectors benefited from an increase of 75%. In addition, a new bylaw is adopted for the ambulance staff without prior consultation with the trade union that led to the loss of some acquired rights.

In her speech, Mrs. Nassira Ghozlane, General Secretary of SNAPAP Algeria, described the catastrophic health situation in Algeria. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the health system. The infected among the medical team reach 51%, and most of them did not benefit from the medical expenses’ coverage. Mrs. Ghozlane referred to the discrimination against migrants in the pandemic, and do not have the right to treatment or vaccination, but some of them were subjected to deportation when they sought refuge in official institutions to receive treatment. In terms of vaccines, few doses are available, half a million doses for a population of 40 million people, she ended.

Dr. Naima Nabih, member of the National University of Health, Moroccan Labor Union, Morocco, pointed out the effects of the comprehensive closure in Morocco following the Corona pandemic, which had negative effects on a number of economic sectors in the Kingdom. She shared the good practices undertaken by the trade unions to remedy to the challenges in the health sector, such as the adoption of a proactive policy to reduce the impact of the economic crisis, and the National Plan for Occupational Health and Safety 2019-2023, including universal health coverage by 2025 to include disease risks through a compulsory insurance system.

Mr. Muhammad Abdullah Al-Arada, President of the Municipal Syndicate, Kuwait, shared with the participants the good practices of the Kuwait Municipality Syndicate and the trade union center, as they were among the first organizations to launch awareness campaigns and distribute protective equipment, implemented occupational health and safety workshops in several sectors, and produced 250 videos in 16 languages, on personal protection and on the importance of the vaccine. One of the videos was presented.

Mrs. Intisar Yousef Al-Khafaji, President of the General Syndicate of Workers in Iraq Electricity, Iraq, pointed out the lack of legislation related to occupational health and safety. Trade union are playing a key role in the promotion of social and social benefits.

Mrs. Rudayna Merhi, women's committee chair in the General Labor Union and representative of the Lebanese Electricity Syndicate, Lebanon, described the poor conditions of social protection and occupational health and safety in the Lebanese public services in light of the economic crisis and the collapse of the Lebanese currency, knowing that a high rate of infections is registered among public services workers. The situation worsened after the August 4 explosion and its negative repercussions at all levels, mainly on workers from the Port of Beirut and the Electricity of Lebanon, working in inhuman conditions and without any protection from environmental factors and the Corona virus.

Najwa Hanna, the PSI Sub Regional Secretary for the Arab Region, introduced PSI’s campaign on the TRIPS waiver essential to accelerate the production of the COVID 19 vaccine, and called on the unions to join the campaign.

A presentation on the conditionality of the International Monetary Fund’s loans and its Social and economic impact is introduced by Mr. Khalil Zaiter, Secretary of the Syndicate of the Port of Beirut, Lebanon. He emphasized that the International Monetary Fund's - IMF - policies in developing countries have led to deepen the economic and social crises and inequalities. As an example, in Lebanon, the IMF financial programs and plans adopted by the government, without prior consultation with the workers organizations, led to privatization, reduced the size of the public sector and the public spending and resulted in poor working conditions, lack of social protection and scarcity of health services.

Recommendations and conclusions

After discussion, the participants in the webinar came out with a set of final recommendations, as follows:

  1. Cooperating with international and regional organizations whose objectives and programs intersect with the member unions, especially in the health sector.

  2. Providing basic services to workers by organizing them in trade union committees that defend their rights.

  3. The need for trade unions to resist the privatization policies imposed by the World Bank.

  4. Raising awareness about the basic information related to the provision of vaccines.

  5. The formation of a crisis cell to follow up the conditions affecting the service sectors, in order to immediately follow up on the damage.

  6. Follow-up on the tax justice campaign, especially after Biden’s proposal to impose taxes on large companies and invest the proceeds in the health sector and front-line workers, and to secure protection for poor countries.

  7. The need to highlight the importance of climate changes and their danger to water, food and epidemics.