200414 Morocco
A factory worker packages disposable protective masks along a production line in Morocco's Casablanca. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: Morocco has imposed an overnight lockdown on Casablanca and shut down its schools Monday, the day pupils were due to return to classes, in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus, local media reported.

The move, which includes restrictions on movement and a night-time curfew, would be in place for two weeks in the commercial capital, the authorities said in a statement.

“We risk being overwhelmed by the virus. Therefore, drastic measures are required, otherwise the situation may get out of control in the coming days,” said Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb, according to the official MAP news agency.

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Morocco has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. It recorded 2,234 new infections on Sunday, a record for a single day, with 42 per cent of them in Casablanca, home to 3.3 million people.

Since detecting its first case in early March, Morocco has recorded 72,394 COVID-19 infections, including 1,361 deaths.

The authorities blame the spread of the killer bug on people’s failure to abide by health protocols.

Casablanca, along with Marrakesh, had already been subject to a series of restrictions three weeks ago, including beach closures and shortened business hours.

Authorities decided on Monday to close educational institutions including primary, middle and high schools as well as universities.

That came after epidemiologists voiced concern over the health system’s capacity to respond to the crisis, and the additional risks posed by the start of the school year.

All exits to major cities were closed from midday, with travel only allowed with exceptional permits, issued by local authorities.

The decision drew criticism on social media from Moroccan people expressing their disappointment.

Ahead of the planned opening, epidemiologists had raised concerns over the health risks of students returning to school and the capacity of the health sector to respond to a further spike in cases.

Dr. Tayeb Hamdi, vice president of the national health federation had recommended postponing the start of the school year to avoid schools becoming vectors of contamination, in an interview published Monday by the news site Medias24.

However, Ghita Benjelloun, head of the child psychiatry department of the largest hospital in Casablanca, flagged extremely negative effects of keeping schools closed after a long lockdown that generated among young people a lot of fear, anxiety and insecurity.

Cases of suicide attempts, violence and conduct disorders among young patients — both children and adolescents — have tripled in her department since the lockdown, she said, according to Medias24.

In mid-June, the Moroccan Pediatrics Society had alerted authorities to the possible devastating effect of lockdown on youths.