This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".
Jordan’s coronavirus response was rapid and dramatic. It recognized the danger posed by its insufficient medical capacity (1.4 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants), limited resources, and large refugee population, and the resulting need for severe social controls to limit infection and prevent collapse of the health system. The government mobilized its official Epidemics Committee in late January, before Jordan’s first case (March 2) of the virus.
On March 17, King Abdullah II activated (for the first time) the Defense Law of 1992, granting Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz sweeping emergency powers. The next day Jordan closed borders and shut down most public life, including businesses, transport, prayers, and schools. On March 21 – after short advance notice, leading to a run on food and essential consumer goods at stores – sirens heralded a round-the-clock nation-wide curfew, enforced by the military and national police. The lockdown’s initial stages created significant confusion: inadequate planning and logistics meant the government’s neighborhood distribution network for bread didn’t reach some areas, leading to long lines, frustration, and disorder.
Within a week, the government made needed corrections, and eased restrictions between 10:00 (now 8:00) and 18:00, opening neighborhood food stores and pharmacies; allowing grocery deliveries; and permitting individuals walking (driving without a permit was forbidden until April 29) to shops. It also reopened factories producing food products, medicine, and medical supplies. Schools and universities shifted to distance and on-line learning (including dedicated channels on Jordan Television). The government executed targeted measures in “hot zones”: the military isolated the old city of Irbid (third largest city in Jordan), and some of its surrounding towns, on March 26, after a spike in cases; and certain neighborhoods and even buildings, including in Amman, were and are isolated temporarily to allow epidemiological investigation and sterilization. There are also 24-hour curfews every Friday (to prevent public and family gatherings), with a ban on communal prayers and iftar meals during Ramadan (which began on April 23).
The government is cognizant of the effect of the rigorous containment steps on the economy, which already had low growth (around 2 percent), and unemployment close to 20 percent. 40-50 percent of those employed were in the informal workforce and lack an official safety net. Tourism, accounting for some 20 percent of Jordan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and which employs 55,000, has come to a standstill. The IMF estimates the economy will contract by 3.7 percent this year, before rebounding and growing by more than three percent in 2021.
The government has implemented steps to alleviate hardships for the public and businesses, including deferring tax and loan payments; ensuring laid-off employees receive 50 percent of their salaries, funded partially by the Social Security Corporation (there have been ongoing reports of private employers firing workers or not paying their furloughed workers); direct assistance to the poor, elderly and ill; creating public funds which have received tens of millions of dinar (JD) in private and corporate donations; freezing public sector and military pay raises for 2020 and cutting high salaries in the public sector, including 30-40 percent of ministerial salaries; providing low-interest guaranteed loans for small and medium companies; and increasing liquidity by reducing banks’ compulsory reserve ratio on deposits.
Jordan’s refugee population of approximately 1,000,000 (mostly Syrian) is particularly vulnerable. Some of the Syrian refugees remain in camps, but the majority now live in Jordan’s cities. They face heightened health risks due to crowded accommodations, inadequate water and sanitation, and limited healthcare access. The lockdown reduced their employment opportunities making it more difficult for them to purchase necessities or pay rent. Aid agencies have complained that the movement restrictions have disrupted their ability to serve their clients in Jordan; and the decision to block access to the Rukban refugee camp, which lies on the Syrian side of the border with Jordan, has received notable media attention.
Overall, the harsh measures seem effective. As of May 7, 473 cases had been recorded, with nine deaths and over 370 recovered (the official figures are viewed as trustworthy). Contact tracing and testing, as well as random testing, are carried out, with over 97,000 tests so far. The government began easing the lockdown in less-affected regions, starting (April 19) with Aqaba, and continuing with another seven out of twelve governorates. After several gradual steps, it re-opened the economy country-wide (though not the educational system or the borders, nor restaurants/cafes, places of worship, or entertainment centers) on May 3rd, though it still dictates protective health and safety measures, and has not lifted the night curfew. It has partially reopened the airport to allow return of Jordanian students and expatriates: over 23,000 have applied, and over 3,000 have already returned, undergoing testing and being sent directly to quarantine hotels run by the military. There is public discussion and awareness of a possible second wave of infection and the government has threatened a resumption of more stringent measures if precautions are abandoned, especially after over twenty new cases were found in early May, traceable to a truck driver, and leading to new targeted closures in Mafraq Governorate and in Irbid.
The regime seems to be making some use of the crisis to suppress criticism. Printing newspapers was suspended, ostensibly due to the danger of infection, threatening the economic viability of many media outlets. The authorities constantly warn of “fake news,” and their intention to counter it severely under the emergency legislation and the country’s far-reaching anti-terror and cyber-crimes laws: “publishing, re-publishing, or circulating any news about the epidemic in order to terrify people or cause panic among them via media, telephone, or social media.” carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. Two senior managers in Roya TV, a private channel, were arrested (April 9) after highlighting workers’ complaints about the economic impact of the curfew, as was a Jordan-based Bangladeshi journalist reporting on the tribulations of Bangladeshi workers in Jordan. Human Rights Watch has noted that “The Jordanian government has acted decisively to protect its citizens and residents from coronavirus, but recent measures have created the impression that it won’t tolerate criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic.”
The securitization of Jordan’s response has been obvious: the government has been ruling through “Defense Orders,” with the king and senior officials speaking of “war,” “struggle,” and “resistance,” against the virus. The Coronavirus Crisis Cell of the National Center for Security and Crisis Management – set up in 2015 under the King’s brother Prince Ali, and whose board is composed of the Prime Minister and the heads of the army and all the security services – coordinates all government, military, and security services activity. While the civilian government is clearly in control, the military and Public Security Directorate (PSD) play the major role in implementation. They enforce movement limitations through checkpoints and patrols (seizing hundreds of cars and arresting thousands of individuals – including two parliamentarians), as well as drones and surveillance cameras. They also distribute supplies to isolated populations, disinfect affected areas, and operate military hospitals. This dependence on the security forces reflects their singular organizational capabilities and resources, alongside deficiencies of civil state and local government capacity, as well as predisposition of the monarchy.
Jordan lacks resources for a major stimulus package, and in any case faces chronic structural problems in its economy. The IMF approved a 4-year, $1.3 billion loan for Jordan before the crisis’ outbreak, adapting its terms since to cover immediate needs. The EU has proposed a €200 million loan at favorable terms (alongside a similar €500 million Euro loan approved in December 2019).
However, the country’s most significant donors, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, may be less than generous in the short term, due to their own oil price-induced economic problems. In addition, many of the hundreds of thousands of Jordanian expatriates in the Gulf may lose their jobs and return to the kingdom, adding to unemployment and reducing foreign currency remittances (which overall were 3.7 billion dollars, over ten percent of GDP, in 2018).
Foreign and domestic public debt, already close to 100 percent of GDP, and service of which in 2019 consumed 11 percent of government expenditure, will rise. Global recession will shrink Jordan’s export markets. Conversely, the oil price drop should reduce the kingdom’s energy bill – some 25-30 percent of imports – by 50 percent, or 1.6 billion dollars. Nonetheless, the already precarious economy will most probably deteriorate further, with effects falling disproportionately on the poor.
The al-Razzaz government has faced high levels of public criticism and even some disturbances, since its 2018 formation: Jordanians displayed little trust in public institutions, in which they perceived rampant corruption. This has, at least on the surface, abated, and public satisfaction with the government’s policies and performance is now reportedly over 80 percent (though support for its economic policies seems to be significantly lower). This seems largely due to the regime’s notable transparency – almost-daily statements by the information and health ministers, and frequent statements from the prime minister and the king - about the crisis and its policy steps, including its willingness to admit and correct errors: there is also much self-congratulation about international praise for Jordan’s model. Success of the policies and support for the regime are also due to a relatively disciplined public, and the policies’ visible implementation by the security forces, which are prominent and unifying in the national ethos, and held in very high regard (over 90 percent) relative to other institutions.
It is worth noting that discussion of possibly deferring parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall for a year due to the crisis, and/or extending the current parliament (the parliament’s official last day is May 9), does not yet seem to have aroused much criticism. The Jordanian parliament, while its formal powers are extremely limited, is the only elected national body in Jordan and its most significant pulpit for public sentiments and arguments.
It remains to be seen whether these positive political effects, from the regime’s point of view, will continue, once the direct threat of the virus recedes, people return to “the public square” and to more open debate, and the economic and social fallout (as well as regional developments, like possible Israeli annexations in the Jordan Valley) take center stage.
This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.
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