Morocco appears to be going through a new outbreak of Covid-19, which in recent days has started to panic authorities who describe the situation as “critical.” The government in Rabat is constantly under fire from media and doctors who believe that the spike in numbers could make the country a black plague on Europe’s borders.
Threats from doctors in hospitals, plus a social media campaign which shows the chaotic state of public hospitals in the country’s tourist hotspot, finally moved Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb to visit Marrakech on August 19, where he announced the construction of a new “field hospital” for Covid victims.
The move came days after he called back all government workers in his own ministry, cancelling leave, due to the recent spike in Covid cases.
But many worry, that like most of what the government has done in Rabat, this move, like other initiatives, is too little, too late and Morocco is going to soon head towards being a corona hotspot as on one Saturday alone it recently recorded a staggering 1,776 new cases.
Despite Morocco being quick off the mark to impose a full “lockdown” on March 15, many Moroccans believe that the handling of the Covid pandemic is chaotic.
Despite Morocco being quick off the mark to impose a full “lockdown” on March 15, many Moroccans believe that the handling of the Covid pandemic is chaotic, and not very well thought through. For this reason many more believe that Covid is in fact a ruse cooked up by the business elite to shake up the economy to their advantage, as the super-rich here are taking more control of the day-to-day running of government.
Yet regardless of who is running Morocco, it is the poor who are the victims as their only recourse is the under-funded public hospitals, which, according to local press reports, are now breeding grounds for Covid, leading some Moroccan doctors to plead for more help from both the government and private hospitals.
The nightmare starts when Covid sufferers enter the infamous Ibn Zohr hospital. Once there, “the hospital does not even have a Covid circuit,” Imad Sousou, regional Vice-Secretary of the National Federation of Health (FNS), told local media. Sousou blames the regional health authority which, even today, has not appointed a director to the hospital. The result is the hospital itself has become an “epidemic focus,” a point backed up by one Moroccan online journal, in which Khabar-Al-Youm claims the pandemic “had totally saturated the public health system infecting the floors and walls.”
No management, shoddy testing, poor staffing, and lack of equipment – which has even meant doctors with no facemasks – have all contributed to Ibn Zohr probably being an incubator for Covid and the worst public hospital in the country. Decisions taken by the health minister have also spectacularly backfired, as many Moroccans are angry at how aloof he appears to be towards the virus and the alarming rise in cases in the city.
Corruption is also a factor which one entrepreneur, who wished to remain anonymous, summarized simply as “years and years of theft” when speaking of public funds.
What can a penniless hospital, with no management offer its patients?
On testing, Dr. Sousou says it’s no secret that they are “no longer able to perform them and the city’s private laboratories are not even equipped to do so.”
“Honestly, we no longer know what to say to patients, because even the treatment is no longer accessible to everyone.”
“Honestly, we no longer know what to say to patients, because even the treatment is no longer accessible to everyone,” he explained.
“Emergency physicians work with very few resources. . . . I have to put on a gown that is not even my size every morning and disinfect my protective glasses with rudimentary means,” claimed the emergency physician. Worse still, “serious structural problems” plague the hospital which does not have oxygen on the wall to assist the most ill patients. “We only use oxygen cylinders which empty quickly,” Sousou added.
“You’re pretty much left for dead,” start-up guru Hamza Aboulfeth told Inside Arabia. “The problem is that there is only one hospital in Marrakech and if we were given some warning to prepare, we could have done something,” explained the businessman and author, who lives in Marrakech. “But nothing was done in four months! We don’t even have vitamin C in the pharmacies!”
“It’s really a crisis now,” said Ophthalmologist Dr. Anas Oulmidi, who works for a university hospital in Marrakech. He blames the health minister in Rabat for acting too quickly on closing Covid wards in the better equipped CHU university hospital once the numbers started to decrease. That erroneous decision, Oulmidi argues, might have actually been responsible for reversing the trend on infections as it led to Ibn Zhor being the only hospital to treat Covid sufferers.
A slackly implemented set of Covid rules in Marrakech are also responsible for a second wave of infections in the “red city,” which resulted in two large hyper markets in Marrakech closing their doors on August 24, citing 100 cases of employees infected.
The pressure now on all hospitals is going to reach breaking point, the young doctor explained.
“We can’t take both Covid and non-Covid patients anymore and we will have to go back to the previous system of taking only Covid sufferers,” Oulmidi told Inside Arabia. “The biggest fear from doctors is this will lead to a spike in deaths from other illnesses as those with coronary diseases or diabetes will pay with their lives.”
British Expats Left with Mixed Feelings
British expats, while showing Dunkirk spirit, all have mixed feelings about both the handling of the pandemic by Rabat and their own ambassador who some blame for a poorly executed evacuation, which wasn’t really anything more than a WhatsApp group for the latest information, in some cases way behind the events unfolding.
They are worried that they will soon not be able to even leave their homes as the virus “surges” to concerning new numbers, which could lead Rabat to shut down the country entirely once again, closing all airports and borders.
Britain’s foreign office can be accused of not doing enough to evacuate all British tourists.
Britain’s foreign office can be accused of not doing enough to evacuate all British tourists, as its local ambassador in Rabat, Thomas Reilly, oversaw a program which took at least three months to execute, while France repatriated its own subjects within weeks. Reilly, whose three-year term as ambassador was reportedly terminated recently, has been accused by some of having too much “fun” in Morocco, indulging himself with personal interests and obsessing over foibles – and not stepping up to the mark to help British citizens.
The UK foreign office denies that it is cutting short Reilly’s term, however. Yet some British expats believe Reilly’s termination is due to a number of media gaffes the ambassador made, leading one elderly heroine of the British expat community in Marrakech and an old drinking buddy of Boris Johnson to call him a “total prat”, whilst others added that he was “not up to the job.”
“The Embassy effort did work [as] 9,500 Brits got flights out but not everyone comes on holiday with email or Twitter,” added one British expat who preferred to not be named. “But there are no figures for Brits who did not get out until much later.”
“The evacuation was shambolic though,” he continued, “because there was no coordination or control on either side. If Morocco wants tourism to return to pre-Covid form, they will have to arrange proper evacuation procedures. No one is going to come to Morocco if they think they are going to get stuck. Both sides have to up their game on this.”
Others were more diplomatic in how they view the situation.
Colin Bosworth, a British property consultant based in the medina (old town), is more supportive of the British Embassy and Mr. Reilly, but even he admits that the evacuation could have been better organized. “There was no support for people getting back so they were paying a LOT of money on these commercial flights, so it was a bit shambolic,” Bosworth said, using the same descriptive term for the chaotic situation.
Mr. Bosworth is more upbeat about the recent spike in numbers in Marrakech though, despite not allowing his own daughter to leave the house and mingle with locals. “Everyone’s under so much pressure here,” he said defending Mr. Reilly.
Others go further and say that both the Moroccan Embassy in London and the British Consul in Morocco have both done a good job. Mark Willenbrock, a maverick British expat, who is married to a Moroccan wife and has a new born child—he also runs a safari company in Marrakech—even believes that the “people who are dying are those with other health issues.”.
“I’ve had Covid, and to be honest, I’ve had hangovers which have been worse,” Willenbrock joked in an interview with Inside Arabia.
His polemic views even extend to dismissing all media hullaballoo generated towards the Ibn Zohr hospital at the center of the storm.
“This hospital has always been a disaster and I remember reports of people sitting in between beds in the maternity ward.”
“This hospital has always been a disaster and I remember reports of people sitting in between beds in the maternity ward, so it’s not that unusual,” he quipped jovially.
Willenbrock’s own recalcitrant views, although not shared by doctors in Marrakech, will be very welcome in Rabat by a health minister who also wants to play down the rising numbers of infections.
“The evolution of the Covid epidemic is a global thing and Morocco is not an exception,” said Khalid Ait Taleb recently, raising questions among some local journalists on his astuteness and competence towards the handling the pandemic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and in line with standard practice in Morocco, the health minister chose not to respond to calls from Inside Arabia.
It’s unlikely Mr. Reilly will be remembered in Morocco for achieving much except media stunts that backfire, tantrums, and talking to his socks—which made national media in the UK. But it was his resistance to helping British expats in Marrakech carry out a mock terror attack exercise with the British army, which left embassy “wardens” fuming.
For those in doubt about how seriously he took the posting, he left the country with a message in a last interview with a Moroccan website, where no mention of the British evacuation calamity was to be found.
“I had a great time here, it’s going to be difficult to find another place where we will have so much fun,” he is quoted as saying in Hespress, an online magazine.
*The UK Foreign Office finally released a statement, but which didn’t correspond to any of the questions put by the author.