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Conspiracies, remedies, remixes: Five ways the Middle East reacted to coronavirus

Advice - both good and bad - has flooded onto social media as people across the region grapple with the outbreak
Two women pose for a selfie outside Rafik Hariri hospital in Beirut, Lebanon (Reuters)

Just over a month ago, the first case of coronavirus in the Middle East was recorded in the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the virus - officially known as COVID-19 - has spread rapidly across the region. 

It has now reached the majority of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with Iran having the highest death toll outside of China. 

Governments, religious authorities, health workers and ordinary citizens have found unique and often unorthodox ways to deal with the outbreak.

From dancing nurses to special handshakes and homemade cures, here’s how some in the Middle East have responded to the virus:

1. Conspiracy theories 

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Coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China in December, and has reportedly killed over 3,000 people in the country. 

In expressing sympathy to the Chinese, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to suggest the virus was created deliberately by China’s enemies to halt its progress. 

A prominent Saudi journalist offered her own conspiracy theory. 

Noura Almoteari, who has a verified Twitter account and over 217,000 followers, accused Qatar of paying billions "to grow the virus in China''. She said the Gulf emirate spread coronavirus to harm the UAE’s upcoming Expo 2020 event in Dubai, and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify its economy.

Translation: I reckon the composition and the spread of the coronavirus is Qatari and that Doha paid billions to grow the virus in China with the aims of ruining the year 2020 which was intended to be the beginning of achieving the goals for Vision 2030 as well as the 2020 Dubai Expo and the end of the Ottoman Caliphate and the Riyadh agreement and the return of peace to the Middle East

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut political and economic ties with Qatar in 2017, angered at the emirate's divergent foreign policy. 

2. Knee-jerk measures 

Misinformation wasn’t just limited to the origin of coronavirus; it also featured in how authorities attempted to fight the outbreak. 

In Lebanon, schools sprayed students with disinfectant - which some pointed out may do more harm than good. 

Iranian authorities adopted a similar strategy, though not everyone was convinced by the scale of the operation. 

Meanwhile, Egyptians were left scratching their heads at their government’s attempts to contain the virus. 

The reported move to check Chinese restaurants was viewed by many as bigoted and misguided. Official guidance has deemed it highly unlikely that coronavirus is spread through food or packaging.

Egyptian authorities have denied that checks on Chinese restaurants were ever ordered.

3. Religious remedies 

Social media users and clerical figures offered preventative advice based on theology and religious practise. 

Some used Islamic teachings to recommend things to eat which are believed to protect from harm.

Others offered their own ideas about what to consume - and what to insert in your body - to avoid the disease. 

In Iran’s holy city of Qom, the head of its main Shia shrine encouraged worshippers to visit the site to heal themselves from “spiritual and physical diseases”.

Qom has been the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, with the Iranian health ministry repeatedly calling for its religious sites to be closed. 

While they remained open, some pilgrims took the bizarre step of defiantly licking the shrines.

Two of the shrine-lickers have since been arrested. 

Unlike in Qom, Saudi Arabia temporarily banned all foreigners and Saudi residents from performing the Umrah religious pilgrimage in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

4. Alternative greetings 

Since coronavirus is widely thought to be spread from person to person, it's having an impact on how people greet one another.

Kisses and hugs are proving unwelcome, while an academic pronounced that “science says shaking hands is disgusting”. 

Iranians have taken the opportunity to find new and inventive ways to interact.

One Twitter user pointed out that a popular Turkish TV series provided a fitting greeting for the current climate. 

The irony of countries in the West cutting back on physical interactions was not lost on some. 

5. Musical morale boosts 

Amid the stressful ordeal of the outbreak, singing and dancing has brought much needed relief to many.

In Iran, doctors and nurses danced to keeping their spirits up. 

Meanwhile in Algeria, a well-known influencer created a coronavirus remix of a popular song, after being denied entry into Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah with his family.

Likewise in Egypt, a mahraganat song - a form of music which was recently banned in the country - took on the topic of the virus. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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