About two weeks ago, the Saudi government relaxed some of the restrictive measures taken to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Authorities decreed that malls and shopping markets could open, albeit under very strict guidelines. These included social distancing, wearing face masks, advising children and the elderly to remain home, and ensuring that all customers at entry point at such venues were screened for body temperatures.
The government also relaxed the restrictive movements during curfew, allowing residents to roam all over the cities with the exception of Makkah where residents were confined to within their districts only.
Curfew hours were relaxed to between 9am and 5pm, and mosques, schools, restaurants, and other public areas where crowds would normally gather in proximity of each other remained closed, and social gatherings of more than five people were banned.
The government through the various ministries sent plenty of advisories through SMS and social media urging people to practice safe methods while being about.
The news was met with great relief by many who had been cooped up at home during the curfew and especially in the month of Ramadan, where the need to go out daily and shop takes precedence over just about everything else. And go out they did in great numbers.
Parking lots of malls filled up very quickly and throngs of shoppers were reported strolling aisles of these venues. Eyewitnesses were distressed to note that while at some malls, the security guards at the entrances were enforcing the rules of wearing masks and gloves and taking body temperatures, such was not the case everywhere, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods.
Many of the shoppers in these areas thronged open-air stalls or forced their way into overcrowded shops with no concern for social distancing or wearing any sort of face protective gear.
During a drive through such a neighbourhood, I noticed an almost total disregard for the rules set to prevent the spread of the virus as people were standing shoulder to shoulder waiting their turn for fruits and vegetables.
I caught a couple of migrant workers spitting blatantly out on the sidewalk and drove up right to them and after getting out of the car and walking up to them, I gave them a piece of my mind. A passer-by nonchalantly told me that all my words were in vain. “Forget about teaching them anything. Thank God they only spit here!”
I started thinking then whether the message of the pandemic was getting through to these migrant workers, many who come from countries where living in close quarters is a way of life and the trash can or garbage dump is the street beside their dwellings.
Do these people fear the threat of the virus, or do they in some manner believe that they’ve seen worse and that it would not affect them? In figures released by the Ministry of Health, the proportional daily count for coronavirus cases is almost 4 to 1 in favour of the expatriates. These numbers do not lie and should give the government some concern.
Since the lifting of recent restrictions, the daily count of cases has also risen. Where once it averaged close to the 1000 mark, the most recent count had risen to over 1700 cases a day, and all this in less than two weeks. This has forced the Ministry of Interior to issue new guidelines to combat the epidemic.
Family gathering inside homes, clubs, or farms for more than one family, and if they are not living a single residence are not allowed in any manner. The violation would be punishable by 10,000 riyals. This brings to mind the recent report of an extended family gathering over dinner in the UAE, an event that left 30 participants stricken down with the virus.
The Ministry also stated that there are to be no gatherings of people at weddings, funerals, parties, seminars, and salons, the penalty of which is a hefty 30,000 riyals.
Any gathering of shoppers or workers inside or outside the commercial store that exceeds the numbers stipulated in the precautionary measures and preventive measures will result in a penalty of 5,000 riyals for each person exceeding the stipulated numbers to a maximum of 100,000 riyals.
All well and good, and most read and understand the laws. But yet there remains a segment within our society who perhaps have not been alerted to the changing rules. It is in such neighbourhoods and camps that the message should be spread loud and clear.
The virus does not discriminate between rich or poor, and each one of us could potentially harm another through careless means or negligence.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena