Arab countries to gradually lift COVID-19 restrictions

Countries across the region are attempting to return to some form of social and economic normalcy.
Tuesday 26/05/2020
People wearing protective face masks wait to complete their paper work in the Civil Status Department after Jordan’s public sector employees returned gradually to work. (Reuters)
People wearing protective face masks wait to complete their paper work in the Civil Status Department after Jordan’s public sector employees returned gradually to work. (Reuters)

AMMAN--Countries in the Arab region are gradually lifting lockdown measures put in place to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries across the region are attempting to return to some form of social and economic normalcy after long weeks of drastic restrictions.

In Jordan, public sector employees began a phased return to work on Tuesday, more than two months after they were told to stay at home under a coronavirus lockdown order, officials said.

Most of the country’s 250,000 civil servants had not been working in their offices since a state of emergency was declared in mid-March.

Sameh al Nasser, head of the civil service commission, said that about 60% of civil servants were expected to show up for work under a gradual plan involving social distancing.

Schools, universities and border crossings were closed and international flights were halted under the lockdown, but tens of thousands of state employees in the medical services, civil defence, customs, security forces and army continued working to maintain essential services.

The government said at the end of last month it had contained the coronavirus outbreak, and many restrictions have been lifted, with most businesses and industries now open again.

Jordan has reported 711 coronavirus cases, with nine deaths. Some medical officials have warned there could be a new rise in infections after the easing of restrictions.

Saudi Arabia, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Gulf, is more cautious about lifting its lockdown. It will extend the lockdown another month, and will ease restrictions in a phased manner, according to the ministry of health.

The curfew is relaxed between 6am and 3pm between Thursday and Saturday, and from Sunday until June 20, the curfew will be further eased until 8pm, the ministry noted.

“Starting from Thursday, Saudi Arabia will enter a new phase in dealing with the pandemic and will gradually return to normal based on the rules of social distancing,” Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah said on Monday.

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it will end its nationwide coronavirus curfew from June 21, except in the holy city of Mecca, after more than two months of stringent curbs.

Congregational prayers will also be allowed to resume in all mosques outside Mecca from May 31, the interior ministry said in a series of measures announced on state media.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, in March suspended the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That suspension will remain in place, the interior ministry said.

Authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year’s hajj, scheduled for late July, but they have urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.

Mecca’s Grand Mosque has been almost devoid of worshippers since March, with an eerie emptiness surrounding the sacred Kaaba — the large cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.

But on Sunday, the first day of Eid, prayers went ahead and an imam stood on a podium while Saudi security forces, some wearing masks, positioned themselves between rows of worshippers, their prayer mats placed in well-spaced arcs.

Saudi Arabia has reported around 75,000 coronavirus infections and some 400 deaths.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait and Dubai also moved to ease their lockdown measures, which together with a collapse in oil prices have pushed the region to its worst economic crisis in decades.

Kuwait, which has reported some 22,000 cases and 165 deaths, also said that it would end its total curfew this weekend, with reduced measures to be announced later.

In the United Arab Emirates, which has reported more than 30,000 cases and 248 deaths, authorities in Dubai moved to lift restrictions on businesses and shorten a nighttime curfew starting Wednesday.

Officials said late Monday that retail stores, gyms, cinemas and attractions like the dolphinarium will be allowed to reopen under social distancing and disinfection rules.

Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum announced the gradual reopening of business activities in Dubai from the fourth day of Eid al-Fitr, UAE news agency WAM reported.

Sheikh Hamdan said the decision was made following a comprehensive assessment of the committee’s reports, various health and socio-economic aspects and a thorough review of the COVID-19 situation.

International guidelines for co-existing with COVID-19 were also taken into consideration before making the decision. The new measures are aimed at adapting to the COVID-19 situation without disrupting activity in vital sectors while strictly observing precautionary measures, including the use of face masks and hygienic practices and the observance of social distancing guidelines.

Sheikh Hamdan stressed the need for Dubai authorities to further raise community awareness, saying that “the community should understand the importance of strictly following preventive steps. Fully adhering to guidelines is key to restoring normal life.”

Staff wearing face masks inside a restaurant in Dubai on May 26, 2020 as the Gulf emirate moved to ease their lockdown measures amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)
Staff wearing face masks inside a restaurant in Dubai on May 26, 2020 as the Gulf emirate moved to ease their lockdown measures amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP

With infections slowing, retail stores, open-air markets and supermarkets have reopened, in Tunisia. The Health Ministry announced on Tuesday that no new COVID-19 infection cases were recorded on May 25, out of 660 conducted screening tests, including 2 as part of follow-up procedures of active cases.

However, authorities are urging citizens to stay vigilant and respect hygiene measures. Experts warned that confinement is more difficult to lift than to impose, noting that the success of the process depends on the public’s adherence to precautionary measures.

Authorities are hoping that the phasing out of confinement measures will allow for the resumption of domestic and international tourism during the economically-crucial summer season. Much of that will depend, however, on if and when Europe, the country’s main source of foreign tourists, decides to open its borders to international travel.