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Bahrain offers a coronavirus success story

By
Adam Ereli
Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa of Bahrain visits the White House on September 16, 2019. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/Polaris
Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa of Bahrain visits the White House on September 16, 2019. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/Polaris | License Photo

April 10 (UPI) -- As Americans and the world wake up every day to frightening new numbers of coronavirus casualties, there are nevertheless timely and instructive reminders that this deadly plague can be beaten.

On Feb. 24, the island state of Bahrain recorded is first COVID-19 case, when a school bus driver who had recently traveled home from pilgrimage in Iran by way of Dubai tested positive. Alarm bells immediately went off. With a population of 1.5 million in an area the size of New York City (300 square miles), Bahrain is the world's third most densely populated country (after Monaco and Singapore). Significant numbers of its citizens travel regularly to Iran and Iraq, which are regional epicenters of the pandemic.

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This combustible mix of exposure and crowding had the potential to decimate Bahrain's population. Yet after only five weeks, the Bahraini authorities have succeeded in containing the virus. As of April 1, Bahrain had only 249 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 and four deaths, with a recovery rate of 59 percent.

The World Health Organization has singled out Bahrain as an example for other countries to follow.

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What is the secret to Bahrain's success? The answer lies in leadership and a whole-of-government approach to crisis management. Another important takeaway from Bahrain's example is that the cohesive nature of Gulf monarchies, which some (mistakenly) decry as anachronistic, are uniquely capable of confronting external threats -- whether they come from viruses or hostile foreign powers.

In late January -- well before COVID-19 had reached Bahrain's shores -- Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa (a graduate of the American School in Bahrain and American University) established under his authority the National Task Force for Combating the Coronavirus. Comprised of the ministries of health, interior, industry, finance, justice, education, civil defense, civil service and others, the task force had as its remit to take all necessary measures to stop the pandemic's spread.

When the virus did hit Bahrain on Feb. 24, the country was ready. Over the next two days, the government suspended flights from the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Lebanon. It disinfected the international airport, banned travel to Iran and mandated immediate testing of anyone who had traveled there in the past month.

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It shut the causeway to Saudi Arabia, a vital link for the country's trade and tourism sectors. It suspended all private and public schools and universities, limited public gatherings to no more than five people and released thousands of prisoners. Religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia were suspended and a national telework scheme implemented.

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Early detection through comprehensive testing prevented widespread rates of infection. As a result of a comprehensive quarantine and the nationwide deployment of mobile testing units, 3 percent of Bahrain's population had been tested by March 28, making it among the world's leaders, as measured by tests-per-million population.

Recognizing that it wasn't alone and seeking to leverage the power of multilateral cooperation, Bahrain was also one of the first countries to sign up to the WHO's SOLIDARITY study, part of an aggressive effort to jumpstart the global search for drugs to treat COVID-19 by means of a multi-country clinical trial for potential coronavirus therapies.

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To offset the costs of coronavirus to an economy largely dependent on trade, manufacturing and services, the government announced an $11.4 billion stimulus package to support the country's citizens and private sector, accounting for a massive 28 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product.

The measures, which will last for up to six months, include extending Bahrain's liquidity fund initiative, interest rate reductions, loan restructuring and salary support, rent decreases and utility relief and grants. The salaries of all private sector employees and utility bills for individuals and businesses will be paid for three months, beginning in April. Municipal fees, industrial land rental fees and tourism levies have been suspended for the same period. The Central Bank's loan facilities have been increased to $9.8 billion to allow for the deferral of debt installments and the extension of credit.

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Countries like Bahrain and Singapore are admittedly not representative of the challenges confronting larger, more decentralized states. Nevertheless, their experience holds valuable lessons for those seeking to manage this crisis.

Most importantly, responsible leadership matters. Quick, forceful and sustained action from the top sets the tone for society at large. A well-coordinated whole-of-government mobilization is also critical to the effective deployment of resources and full implementation of measures nationwide. Transparency and open communication of the facts have similarly proved dispositive.

In all these respects, Bahrain's example demonstrates that with the right approach, we can beat COVID-19.

Adam Ereli served as U.S. Ambassador to the kingdom of Bahrain from 2007 to 2011.

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