The month of March for many countries marks the first anniversary of the Covid-19 virus and its subsequent protocols. In Saudi Arabia too, it was this month last year when the health ministry went on full alert and began issuing a series of cautionary steps to combat a yet to be understood menace that was spreading fast and uncontrollably across the globe with tragic results.
Within a year, the virus has infected more than 122 million people in all countries and resulted in over 2.7 million deaths — and counting as fatalities due to the pandemic are being recorded daily.
For a population of over 35 million, the quick action of the Saudi ministry of health resulted in a relatively low proportion of fatalities due to the virus, with 6,591 cases (as of March 19) falling victims to this nasty bug.
Through measured responses which included curfews, lockdowns, and permission of movement through smartphone applications, the ministry had their work cut out in getting other government agencies to help implement such draconian measures not witnessed in several generations.
There was a heavy price to pay during the initial onslaught of the virus. While there was no vaccine yet then, the curfew seemed the most effective way to stop the spread of this deadly disease. So much so, that for the first time in its history, the kingdom banned any foreign pilgrims from making the trek to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah to perform obligatory religious rituals. Schools and universities were shut down, switching to remote learning. Mosque visits were curtailed while malls, movie theatres, and restaurants were shuttered.
The inevitable fallout
Like its neighbours in the GCC and elsewhere, the price came in the form of many small and medium enterprises being forced to shut down, even though the Saudi government had made significant contributions, reaching billions of riyals, to keep many afloat during the hard months. But the sustained threat that has now reached its first anniversary was too much for some who simply could not afford to keep going and finally shut down.
As the months passed and people began taking the threat seriously and following defined protocols, the number of cases of those stricken by the virus began to fall. To balance the threat of the virus against the economic and social needs of the country, one had to follow a carefully measured response and a couple of months ago, the health ministry began relaxing some of the stringent actions taken earlier.
Malls, restaurants and movie theatres were made accessible to the people starved of social interaction and entertainment. Even though there were guidelines for business establishments to follow, economic needs took a priority and some started to ignore the guidelines. As a result, the authorities stepped in again, metering out social rituals to safer levels.
Recently, with the threat having reached controllable levels, the health ministry lifted most of the restrictions on our activities, with a massive campaign to alert the people to be on guard and to continue following the safeguards previously defined such as social distancing, mask-wearing and utmost hygiene rituals.
Unfortunately, all the exhortations of the ministry seems to have fallen on deaf ears on many of the residents of this country who have taken the new relaxation of rules to be a ticket to return of full normality to pre-Covid years.
Crowds have thronged restaurants, malls, theatres and beachfront in such large numbers that it is feared that the numbers of infections that had been declining will begin to rise again dramatically.
The young and reckless
With a fairly young population, it is easy to notice how oblivious these young minds are to the virus threat as they throng cafes and other meeting points in large numbers. However, while business owners rejoice at the full return of their customers, keeping the cash registers ringing, the virus threat remains.
The limit on numbers for social congregation seems to be completely ignored and I suspect many think that the return to relaxed rules means that the virus is no longer around or harmful. Or perhaps the fact that people in the country are being vaccinated against it makes it easier on the rest to move about unrestricted with little attention to previously defined protocols.
Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the world experiencing such a phenomenon as we have seen or heard such things happening elsewhere. Yes, the people are sick of being stifled and cooped up indoors. Yes, businesses are hurting and social life is being distorted.
But until we get enough of our population vaccinated, it is wise to remain cautious and continue to observe the strict protocols defined by the authorities. The threat is real; do not have any other illusions.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena