Lockdowns do not come easy but Arab governments have few options

Convincing citizens of abiding by curfews and confinement orders has not been easy.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Tunisian women work on the production of medical masks in a factory in the central city of Kairouan. (AFP)
Keeping the faith. Tunisian women work on the production of medical masks in a factory in the central city of Kairouan. (AFP)

TUNIS - In the face of the mounting toll of the coronavirus pandemic, most of the Arab region, as many other parts of the world, has been catapulted into full lockdown mode, with airline travel suspended, schools shuttered, human movement reduced to strict essentials and economic activity screeching to a halt.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases passed 5,000 in Turkey and 3,000 in Israel and was more than 1,000 in Saudi Arabia. Most other countries in the Middle East and North Africa reported hundreds of cases.

Iran remains the worst-hit country in the region, with an official death toll of more than 2,500 and more than 35,000 people infected. About 21,000 people were hospitalised and more than 3,000 were listed in serious or critical condition.

Restrictive measures gradually escalated to daytime and night-time curfews in many places, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria.

Convincing citizens of abiding by curfews and confinement orders has not been easy. Authorities have made arrests, confiscated cars and imposed steeper penalties against violators.

In Jordan, no fewer than 2,000 people were arrested and arrests were made in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, social media posts showing violations of the curfew can draw sentences of up to 5 years in prison and fines of $800,000.

Sometimes, ordering curfews was easier said than done. Chaotic distribution of goods forced Jordanian officials to relax restrictions.

To dissuade violators of confinement rules, Tunisian police used robots. Zipping through Tunis and handing out infractions to those violating quarantine measures, the security devices made a splash with the public after some people had been reluctant to follow government directives.

"With thermal anomaly detection, real-time video and audio capabilities and a laser telemetry system, the vehicles are an effective tool for ministry officials to communicate government messages and interact with the public while limiting person-to-person contact," said Radhouane Ben Farhat, commercial director of Enova Robotics, which manufactured the robots.

In most of the Arab world, wariness about the disease and respect for the restrictions prevailed. Social workers and retired doctors volunteered to help. A group of 150 people, mostly women, also volunteered in Tunisia to confine themselves in a factory for a month to manufacture much-needed surgical masks.

Some Salafist advocates tried to exploit the situation by billing mosques closures and bans on group prayers as an assault on the faith but they seemed to have little sway with the public.

Most mainstream Muslims scholars have been supportive of government decisions closing all places of worship as a precautionary measure to stem the spread of the virus.

“After carefully considering the nature of this contagious and rapidly spreading virus and its impact on lives, together with the societal, religious and political implications, scholars agreed… all Muslims and citizens of the United Kingdom should adopt social distancing,” read a statement signed by Islamic figures in the United Kingdom.

Moroccan Salafist preacher Abou Naim called the closures “a scandal" and issued threats that led to authorities arresting him on anti-terrorism laws.

"Whether in Algeria, Morocco or Egypt, Salafists seem to have agreed on using the epidemic to serve their political ambitions," noted Egyptian writer Ahmad Hafez.

Unauthorised but mostly tolerated nightly marches continued by small crowds in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and other places, uttering religious chants and praying for divine help in "defeating the epidemic."

In their calls for prayers, muezzins asked the faithful to pray at home while Quranic recitations continued to be broadcast from mosque minarets.

In Baghdad, the anniversary of the death, in the eighth century, of Imam Musa al-Kadhim drew tens of thousands of pilgrims, encouraged to attend by influential Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr.

As they sit home and ponder the public health crisis, many spend time watching television and surfing the internet. Sober discussions are often punctuated with conspiracy theories.

Nowhere was the appeal of conspiracy theories more evident than in an opinion survey conducted March 25-26 in Tunisia that stated that 46% of respondents said they shared the conspiratorial view that the coronavirus was man-made by "US labs seeking to weaken China.”

About 30% of those asked said the contagion was the result of a "natural phenomenon" and 16% blamed hygiene lapses in China.