As the United States tops the coronavirus morbidity charts, and as thousands continue to die in France, Britain and Spain, small, poor countries like Jordan, where 340 people have so far taken ill, are pushed to the edges of global interest and to the end of the line when it comes to assistance.
The government in Amman has so far taken most of the right steps. It has isolated the capital, Amman, from the rest of the country. It has closed its borders with its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Israel, and shut down international air traffic. It has placed the country under a curfew, which was eased slightly after people stormed food distribution trucks, sparking riots.
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Hospitals in Jordan went on alert ahead of grim forecasts that the number of sick and dead would spike, but Jordan is running out of protective gear, facemasks, respirators and medical personnel. The streets of Amman and other cities are packed with security forces and police, undercover and uniformed, who are acting with determination, and sometimes brutality, to prevent people gathering and leaving home during the curfew. Assistance organizations complain that the police don’t even allow vehicles distributing food and medical equipment in the streets and delivery teams sometimes have to carry their deliveries on foot to people’s homes and clinics.
Like Lebanon and Turkey, Jordan is host to almost 800,000 Syrian refugees, along with thousands of Iraqi refugees from the Gulf War. The resulting economic burden has placed the country on the verge of collapse. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Jordan’s economy had begun to stabilize and international financial institutions were predicting a growth rate for Jordan of 2.1 percent in the coming year and 3 percent the year after. Now all these fine forecasts have been disrupted and Jordan will be pleased if its economy doesn’t plummet to negative growth. Economic reforms, which included raising fuel prices, were not completed due to a storm of public protest that broke out in 2018.
International assistance, especially a loan Jordan received from the International Monetary Fund of $1.3 billion, and a loan from the Gulf states have meanwhile cushioned the kingdom’s ability to manage the economy. On government orders, the Central Bank reduced the liquidity ratio of the country’s banks and in so doing injected around $700 million into the economy. The government also ordered Jordan’s banks to grant loans at low interest rates of up to 2 percent.
But these steps cannot revive the tourism industry, which has been shut down for a month now, and will take a year at least to get back on its feet. Tourism brings the country around $5 billion a year, 12.5 percent of GDP, and employs some 50,000 people. Hotels in Aqaba and Amman have been almost completely shuttered and in Petra, cleaners are disinfecting the country's antiques to prepare them for the day the tourists return.
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King Abdullah has called on the public, especially businesspeople, to show solidarity and contribute to health services and assistance groups to help the government with the huge financial burden it now bears. Some answered the call, like the owner of the country’s Toyota agencies, who contributed 100,000 dinars to the Health Ministry, and the pharmaceutical company Hikma, which contributed about 3 million dinars.
Syrians who have opened businesses in Jordan contributed 600,000 dinars, 400,000 in cash and 200,000 in equipment. “We want to give back to Jordan. It made it possible for us to open businesses and we need to help it now in the crisis,” the Association of Syrian Businessmen in Jordan said.
Driving refugees even further into poverty
Wealthy Syrians recognize the economic burden Syrian refugees place on Jordan and consider it their obligation to stand up for the government, but the extent of their contribution is very far from meeting the needs of the refugees.
Most refugees, whether they live in camps or in large cities, work for a living and do not rely on aid from the UN Refugee Agency. They usually work in factories, construction or agriculture, jobs wich it is not possible to do from home. They can access Jordanian health services for a nominal fee, but at a time when workplaces are shuttered, this is money most cannot afford.
According to the UN-run humanitarian information website ReliefWeb, most Syrian refugees in Jordan were in poor health even before the coronavirus outbreak: Some 82 percent have had to take out loans to survive and about 80 percent live in poverty. This means that during the lockdown and curfew they can’t stockpile food in their apartment or in the tents in which some of them live. Overcrowding in the camps also does not allow them to practice social distancing to prevent infection.
The closing of schools and universities has been particularly hard on the children of refugees, only 40 percent of whom attend school even in ordinary times. The government has launched experimental distance-learning by computers and cellphone apps, but only about 2 percent of refugee families have a computer at home. These children might lose a year’s schooling if the pandemic drags on.
Protests and repression
The country’s leadership remains highly concerned over the public response after the pandemic passes. Jordan has been restive of late, and the reasons for public protest have not changed; corruption has not been uprooted and the government is still perceived by many as caring only for its own and not for the people.
In a sharply worded article posted on the website Rai Al Youm, operating out of London, the former ambassador of Jordan to Yemen, Fuad Al-Batayneh, demanded that King Abdullah change the makeup of the government, give back money stolen by its senior officials, and order implementation of an economic program that would promote industry and the private sector, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the coronavirus to make essential changes in the kingdom.
“Is this corrupt government suited to any time and any period? The coronavirus is waging a smart war against us that could have implications on our future. We must wage just as smart a war back,” Al-Batayneh wrote. This war, he added, requires comprehensive planning and not just directives to purchase equipment. “It must be directed by experts who not only understand their fields, but also the needs of the public and the nation.”
Al-Batayneh’s statements reflect complaints raised by activists. The government and the king will now confront a much angrier public, facing deeper prospects of joblessness, poverty and a complete lack of confidence in the ruling elite. The use of the army and the police to battle the coronavirus, with emergency laws in full operation and about 2,000 people locked up for breaking curfew or disseminating “false information,” raises the concern that this moment is also being used to settle accounts with political rivals, and that at least some of the draconian regulations will be extended even after the pandemic is over. The day after the crisis might turn out to be no less dangerous than the disease.