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Going viral: Arab world treats virus panic with humour

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Dubai (AFP)

The Arab world has looked to laughter to counter the worst of the fear and speculation swirling around the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the treatments are a TV show starring coronavirus as guest of honour, a parody Covid-19 Twitter account, and song and dance designed to lampoon the panic over the illness.

From Egypt to Iraq and the Gulf to Tunisia, satirical hot takes have spread almost as fast as the virus across a region where authorities have resorted to increasingly draconian containment measures.

- Special guest: coronavirus! -

"What do you say to all the people who are scared of you?" an Egyptian television presenter asked an actor wearing a green virus costume.

"Wash your hands and sneeze away from others!" commands the character with a grotesque green face mask studded with spikes to mimic the coronavirus cell.

On Al-Hayah, a popular commercial channel, the coronavirus complains of "unjust treatment" because of widespread "exaggeration", accusing social media of hyping the epidemic's severity and calling on viewers to follow basic hygiene rules.

"Stay clean, is it that hard?" he asked with a broad Egyptian accent.

The interview, described by the host as "extraordinary", has spread like wildfire on Arabic social media.

- Social media subversives -

Online in the Arab world, the new coronavirus has spawned social media parodies harnessing pop-culture GIFs and memes to prick po-faced attitudes to the outbreak.

One such Twitter account has gone viral, attracting over 60,000 followers.

"The new coronavirus denies rumours concerning the existence of a health ministry in Egypt," said one tweet earlier this month at which point the authorities had yet to report a confirmed case, raising questions about their transparency.

- Satirical song and dance -

A video of "Masks, we don't have them" sung in an Iraqi dialect has also swept the web. The singers berate the dearth of masks in the country where the price of those that are available has shot up.

Lebanese and Jordanians sporting scrubs and masks have also taken to singing to break the tension caused by virus fears.

In North Africa, a young Tunisian has written a song with a message -- featuring harmonised hygiene tips.

In a calm voice set to guitar music, the singer intones the "necessity of masks and disinfectant gel".

- 'Racist' humour -

In the Arab world, sarcastic or good-natured humour can sometimes stray into what might be considered racist territory.

On one YouTube channel, an Egyptian "electro-shaabi" singer has racked up 3.5 million views of a clip in which he wonders aloud over popular street music why the Chinese eat bats and dogs.

Saudi oil giant Aramco faced racism allegations online after a photo emerged of a South Asian man wearing a hand sanitiser dispensing sandwich board, apparently at one of the company's sites. Aramco distanced itself from the images.

- Failing to see the funny -

In the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, police have warned that making jokes or spreading rumours about the virus could lead to legal action, a pro-government newspaper reported.

But in Kuwait, where authorities have enforced some of the strictest containment measures including the suspension of all inbound and outbound passenger flights, keyboard warriors have delighted in creating and sharing memes referencing dystopian sci-fi films.

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