The threat of a new lockdown emerges

After the country initially showed itself to be gaining control over the pandemic, to the point of being classified as a safe country for travel from the European Union, the situation in Morocco has deteriorated, as the King himself has noted. So has Morocco lost its way in the fight against the coronavirus? By Ismail Azzam

By Ismail Azzam

King Mohammed VI's recent speech was a reminder that Morocco is suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and that the country is heading for a return to lockdown, possibly in an even more severe form, if the situation continues as it is.

The king's speech came on the same day that the authorities announced new precautionary measures, such as the closing of public spaces in three cities, including Casablanca, the largest, and Marrakech, the tourist capital, which hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2016.

In recent days and weeks, Morocco has seen worrying signs, as the numbers of new infections and deaths have reached levels not seen since the start of the pandemic. On 18 August, 33 deaths were recorded.

Dramatic situation in hospitals

The biggest worry is the enormous strain being placed on hospitals across Morocco, even in the major cities. Facebook pages under the hashtag #Marrakech_is_suffocating (#مراكش_تختنق) have published terrifying pictures of the growing number of Covid-19 patients in Ibn Zahr Hospital (Al Mamounia).

The situation in that city got to a point where the doctors in one hospital stopped treating patients with Covid-19 because of the lack of safety measures.

"Health has never been a priority for governments in Morocco; it has always been of marginal interest because it does not generate any income for the state. You only have to look at the sector's paltry budget and the minimal resources allocated to it (22,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors for the entire population of over 35 million). All that Covid-19 has done is to make a bad situation worse. As for Moroccans themselves, they know that the health system is collapsing," says Imad Sousou, a physician at the University Hospital Centre in Marrakech.

A woman walks past a tank and soldiers on a street in Tangier, Morocco, on 11 August 2020  (photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP)
Facing a return to lockdown: in recent days and months, the situation regarding the coronavirus in Morocco has deteriorated in a worrying manner with deaths reaching the highest level since the beginning of the pandemic. On 18 August, 33 deaths were recorded. Pictured here: a woman wearing a face mask walks past a tank and soldiers patrolling Tangier amid a new outbreak of the novel coronavirus

How did things get so bad?

After recording several dozen cases, Morocco quickly declared a health emergency: it closed its borders, stopped many areas of activity and restricted the movement of citizens. These actions were well-received in the country, in particular the announcement of plans to support affected parts of the economy, to provide material support to the poor, to distribute millions of masks at low prices, and to introduce laws to punish anyone flouting the new regulations. So much so that the authorities even arrested a woman who publicly questioned the existence of the pandemic.

Since the authorities began to ease the lockdown in June and increase the number of tests, the number of cases started to rise bit by bit. This led to a spike in cases in the lead-up to Eid al-Adha at the end of July.

However, the same authorities that had initially demonstrated coherence in the face of the pandemic began to announce decisions that might best be described as on the hoof. They included closing major cities only days before Eid, without giving citizens reasonable notice.

Criticism was directed at the state for allowing companies with large workforces to continue operating without any regard to workers' safety; this led to the emergence of a number of clusters in industrial areas.

"There is no doubt that the state did manage, at the beginning of the pandemic, to save Moroccan lives and to mitigate the painful economic and social repercussions of the lockdown. Nevertheless, an inveterate lack of government communication gave way to rumours," Omar Abbasi, a parliamentarian from the Independence (Istiqlal) Party, told He went on to describe a number of government decisions as muddled, which is "no less dangerous than citizens having no respect for safety measures."

The need to strengthen the health system

Looking at the experience of countries that dealt with coronavirus in a transparent manner, it was evident that Morocco would face a serious challenge as a result of the fragility of its health system, as attested by both local and international reports.

According to Imad Sousou, the health authorities squandered three months of lockdown, which could have been used to get the hospitals ready during a time when people were stuck at home and there was no great pressure on the health sector.

Sousou also criticises what he sees as the dominance of a single narrative in dealing with the crisis; there is no one to criticise public policies, and even if there were, they would be accused of undermining the state.

Dr Sousou argues that the health authorities must move from being reactive to being pro-active. In other words, they should treat patients in the early stages of Covid-19, while not neglecting those suffering from other serious diseases. Moreover, work should be undertaken to prepare local clinics to cater to their respective residential neighbourhoods.

In addition, no more hospitals should be devoted to treating only COVID-19 patients. After all, new infections are emerging above all in other hospitals that were not set aside to deal with this disease because of the inadequate safety measures in them. Most importantly, Dr Sousou adds, the Ministry of Health must formulate a clear strategy because that is not currently the case.

Can the Moroccan economy cope with a return to lockdown?

A return to lockdown would pose fundamental questions: what would happen to the millions of Moroccans dependent on the service economy and to the casual workers and other sectors facing a new shutdown?

A health worker distributes a mask to a man on a beach in Rabat, Morocco, on 27 August 2020 (photo: imago images/Xinhua | Chadi via
A return to lockdown would pose fundamental questions: could Morocco as a whole cope with the economic damage against a background of the continuing drought facing crops, the decline in exports and the fall in tourism? Pictured here: a health worker distributes a mask to a man on a beach in Rabat, Morocco

Could the state continue to compensate those affected, especially after the King made plain that this support "cannot last indefinitely?" In any case, the subsidy only covers a fraction of the living expenses of poor families.

Could Morocco as a whole cope with the economic damage against a background of the continuing drought facing crops, the decline in exports and the fall in tourism?

"A return to lockdown, especially if it is a strict lockdown, will paralyse the casual labour market, which represents 37 per cent of all work opportunities," says Mostafa Azougagh, a Moroccan economic correspondent.

Azougagh argues that, were this to happen, the state would be unable to make loans available and to maintain liquidity. Indeed, the room for manoeuvre to create budgetary resources would shrink, not least because of the expected decline in tax revenues. This could push the state to increase external borrowing, which would be extremely costly.

As for the social implications, Azougagh does not expect that the state will be able to continue supporting poor families. Nor will it be able to provide assistance to those who lose their jobs, and this will damage families' purchasing power and push the unemployment rate higher than forecast. For Azougagh, the economy would not be able to not cope with a return to lockdown; it is already too fragile because of its dependence on adequate rainfall.

After three tough months of lockdown, Moroccans are aware that measures such as wearing masks, respecting social distancing and sanitising everything, while necessary, are not in themselves sufficient.

The authorities must learn from their own mistakes and from the experiences of other countries that faced the disease in its first wave. The primary lessons are that the state should invest in the health sector, focus on scientific research, and develop a clear plan based on the assessments of experts and of those who can make a meaningful contribution.

Ismail Azzam

© 2020

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton