The Middle East has struggled to contain the spread of coronavirus, but Jordan is an outlier

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As most of the world struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, one country which should have been vulnerable appears to have kept deaths and case numbers extremely low.

Jordan, which hosts millions of refugees and has a fragile economy, has only recorded nine coronavirus deaths.

It is an outlier in the Middle East, where many countries have been unable to contain the spread of the disease.

Neighbouring Israel, with 9.2 million people, has more than 15,000 cases and around 200 deaths, while outbreaks in nearby Turkey and Iran are out of control.

Jordan, on the other hand, is now starting to lift restrictions on all economic activity, with public transport resuming and businesses and shops reopening.

Jordanians were not allowed to leave the house under any circumstances, but the Government eased restrictions when people started running out of food.(Reuters: Muhammad Hamed)

The kingdom has not had a single COVID-19 case in a week.

But it has faced criticism for the harsh lockdown, which limited the spread to under 500 total cases for a population of nearly 10 million.

While the country may now be able to return to some semblance of normality, people nearly starved in the process and there were fears of social unrest.

Jordan adopted some of the strictest COVID-19 measures in the world

The kingdom introduced early travel restrictions on high-risk countries like China and Iran and began preparing health workers and hospitals for the outbreak.

The country went into lockdown comparatively early, on March 18, deploying the army and police to stop travel and enforce closures.

Initially, Jordan banned anyone but essential workers from leaving home for any reason, until hungry people stormed food delivery trucks.

A man boards a bus packed with stacks of flat breads in Jordan
After people were stuck in mandatory lockdown with dwindling food supplies, the Government bussed in bread to deliver to neighbourhoods.(Reuters: Muhammad Hamed)

Then, the Government allowed people to go out in the day, on foot, to local shops for food.

Vehicular travel and gatherings were banned.

Police and the army set up hundreds of checkpoints, impounding more than 1,000 cars and imprisoning 2,000 people for breaking the curfew.

All international arrivals — an estimated 5,800 of them — were forcibly quarantined in Dead Sea hotels.

The Government outlined its response in televised nightly briefings, turning Jordan’s health minister, former military surgeon Saad Jaber, into a national celebrity.

Saad Jaber waving during a press conference
Jordanian Health Minister Saad Jaber has become a national celebrity during his daily coronavirus briefings.(Reuters: Muhammad Hamed)

His looks were compared to George Clooney and his public Facebook page now features marriage proposals and declarations of love.

But Dr Jaber took the outbreak extremely seriously, telling the ABC the Government prioritised people’s health over the economy.

“We knew that some of our measures would be costly,” he said.

“[But] we will not allow the herd immunity issue, we will not allow any Jordanian to die without a fight.

“I don’t know if we succeeded but the low death rate is something we are proud of, we didn’t lose many people.”

Jordan’s government did not tolerate much criticism of its response, with monitoring group Human Rights Watch reporting that journalists, editors and activists were arrested for airing concerns about the restrictions.

But now the lockdown is easing, Jordanians are saying the curfew has damaged an economy which was already fragile, mainly due to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Those measures have already started to bite

The country absorbed more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom remain.

A group of children line up to wash their hands at an outdoor sink
There were fears of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among Jordan’s large Syrian refugee population, so handwashing awareness campaigns were deployed.(Reuters: Muhammad Hamed)

It is also home to millions of Palestinians displaced by the conflict with Israel.

With no domestic oil or gas production, Jordan recently took loans from the International Monetary Fund and Gulf countries to stay afloat.

Hamza, a tailor in Amman with three children, told the ABC the curfews meant he lost his meagre daily income and ran out of money for food and rent.

“I went into shock, I didn’t know how to get the essential things for my family,” he said.

“I barely got by when I was working, and at the time I was depressed and anxious, I felt hopeless.”

“I tried but I was not eligible for any social security support … so it was really very difficult.

“We were the weakest link in this program, we were the ones that lost the most.

“But I must say the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Information and the Army did a great job, they deserve the credit for that.”

Amman-based economic consultant Mohammed AbuGoush said the coronavirus lockdowns have crippled the country’s business sector and left many Jordanians without income.

“The economy itself had a problem way before the coronavirus, so we can say that the Government worked excellently on this issue of the coronavirus and didn’t take the economic situation into consideration,” he said.

“We’ll start to feel the heat, start to feel the bad situation when we come back to normal life.”

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