King Mohammed VI directed his government on March 15 to create a special fund of 10 billion dirhams (about $1 billion USD) to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The King intervened a day after Head of Government Saad Dine El Otmani tried to do a snow job over the Moroccan people in a meeting with the press, suggesting Moroccans should relax, not overbuy food and supplies, and go about their lives normally, falsely stating that one cannot catch the virus by sitting next to someone on a bus or a train.
The contrast between the proactive action of Morocco’s King, who clearly is taking the pandemic seriously, and El Otmani’s patently false statements, contradicting scientists worldwide about how the virus is transmitted—presumably made to avoid “public panic,” is striking.
The contrast between the proactive action of Morocco’s King, who clearly is taking the pandemic seriously, and Head of Government Saad Dine El Otmani’s patently false statements, is striking.
El Otmani’s misstatements sounded eerily similar to what the American public had been hearing from their Head of State over the last several weeks—contradicting his own appointed Coronavirus Task Force, scientists, and medical experts, and ultimately setting back the US response to the pandemic by at least six weeks.
What has been happening on the ground in Morocco over the last week is a welcome contrast.
Morocco’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 2. As of the morning of March 17, teams of fumigators were going around Marrakech’s largest square Djemaa el Fna, spraying down the pavements, stalls, and adjacent buildings throughout the morning. As of 4pm that afternoon, all schools, hammams, markets, restaurants, and cafes had been ordered to close, with mosques soon to follow, and gatherings of more than 50 people prohibited.
By 5pm that day, what may be the busiest square in the world with its fortunetellers, snake charmers, monkey-handlers, herbalists, henna ladies, musicians, dancers, contortionists, and acrobats, was eerily barren and quiet—the souks behind it devoid of shoppers, tourists, and hawkers, with only a few straggling shopkeepers closing up their stalls.
Almost everything in Morocco, except supermarkets and local grocery shops, is now closed “until further notice,” by order of the Ministry of Interior.
Almost everything, except supermarkets and local grocery shops, is now closed “until further notice,” by order of the Ministry of Interior.
The impact on Morocco’s economy, not to mention the social and societal repercussions of the pandemic, is likely to be severe. The newly announced special fund is to be used not only to improve medical facilities and infrastructure to combat the pandemic, but also to address the impacts on industry sectors, such as tourism, that are prone to disruption. However, it may not be enough to sustain an economy that relies on a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry and numerous vibrant small and medium enterprises providing entertainment, cafes and bars, gourmet restaurants and fast food establishments to millions of people.
Already it is apparent that Morocco’s tourism industry is being hit hard. Morocco announced on Sunday, March 15 that all international flights would be suspended, leaving many tourists trapped and having to sleep in Morocco’s airports as they tried to get home on a few “repatriation flights.” The UK and France negotiated a number of flights for their citizens, but the US was much slower to act. The US Embassy initially recommended that American tourists try to get on those rescue flights to Europe, if available.
It wasn’t until Thursday night on March 19, after an embarrassing question from a CNN reporter during President Trump’s COVID-19 press conference the same day and a Twitter campaign from stranded Americans appealing for help, that the US announced any type of assistance for US citizens, much less any organized special chartered flights to get them home.
The lack of a US response fostered much confusion, with tourists not knowing where to turn. Jake Green, an American stranded in Fes, said: “We got negative help from the US Embassy and Consulate. They were actually counterproductive because they told us to stay put or move at all the wrong times.” While he did eventually get on one of the special flights to London, he said that “everything useful came from other embassies. Our flight was scheduled by the UK Embassy.”
Since King Mohammed VI announced a fund to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Moroccan philanthropists, large corporations and NGOs, and even government ministers have pledged to contribute.
The Moroccan government has ramped up its response much more quickly. Yet, it will undoubtedly take time for the Moroccan government to roll out the programs the King directed it to devise to implement the special COVID-19 fund. Since the fund was first announced last week, Moroccan philanthropists, large Moroccan corporations and NGOs, and even government ministers have pledged to contribute significant additional dirhams, and it has more than doubled from the original amount the King announced. People are hopeful, but at the same time skeptical, that the funds will actually be spent on the programs and not diverted to officials’ pockets.
In the meantime, many Moroccans are modifying their personal behavior to combat the COVID-19 virus in the community and minimize the impacts on their health and that of others, despite cultural norms. The outpouring of offers of help by Moroccans on social media to others in need has been extraordinary. Moroccans have also opened their homes and rooms in their mostly empty maisons d’hotes to stranded tourists free of charge.
Many Moroccans in urban areas last week began what the West has dubbed social distancing—avoiding crowds and popular places. In the supermarkets many were wearing surgical masks and gloves.
Yet, social distancing is far removed from normal Moroccan culture. Staying 6 feet (a meter and half) away from other people is a challenge. In more rural areas especially, few refrain from greeting others with a handshake or with a kiss on both cheeks.
Some of the COVID-19 fund money should be used to launch a public education and awareness campaign to inform Moroccans about proper hygiene to slow the spread and severity of the virus.
Some of the special fund money should be used immediately to launch a public education and awareness campaign on TV and radio, as well as via social media and, in rural areas, door to door, to inform Moroccans about proper hygiene to slow the spread and severity of the virus. This includes washing hands with soap and warm water frequently throughout the day, for at least 20 seconds; avoiding touching the face to prevent the virus from coming into contact with mucus membranes such as the eyes, nose, and mouth; and not drinking out of the same cup as others.
Without data, though, it is impossible to know the true extent of the infection. On March 16, the World Health Organization sent out one piece of advice to every country facing the pandemic: “Test, test, test” every suspected case. It is not clear how rapidly Morocco is testing people.
With more new cases being announced every day, Morocco’s Ministry of Health claims there are only 96 total confirmed cases in the country as of Saturday March 21 (though the situation on the ground is evolving rapidly and the numbers are subject to change). Three of those so far have resulted in deaths. Most of the cases were said to have come from outside the country, but community spread is inevitable.
Although the public prosecutor has stated that anyone “spreading fake news” about the coronavirus will be prosecuted, Morocco does not appear to be “weaponizing” the pandemic the way some governments in the region are.
Some worry that the Moroccan government may not be revealing the full extent of the problem to keep the numbers falsely low so as not to “panic the public,” as the Head of Government put it in his press meeting. Yet, although the public prosecutor has stated that anyone “spreading fake news” about the coronavirus will be prosecuted, Morocco does not appear to be politicizing or “weaponizing” the pandemic the way some other governments in the region are doing.
Nonetheless, the Department of the Interior declared a state of emergency last Thursday night putting the country under lockdown as of pm on Friday, March 20.
Obviously, Moroccans need to be told the truth in order for the country to combat the pandemic effectively. With Morocco as a constitutional monarchy, King Mohammed VI has spoken. It is up to the government to exercise its duty to serve and protect the public and carry out the King’s directives honestly, transparently, and quickly.
Whatever measures the government comes up with to implement the King’s March 15 directive, Morocco’s primary agenda, in contrast to other countries in the region, seems to be to take the threat seriously and act early and effectively to minimize the spread of the virus.