Jordanian authorities clamp down on demonstrations after oxygen deaths

Jordan’s King Abdullah warns against civil strife after the deaths at a government hospital that ran out of oxygen sparked protests

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Jordanian security forces arrested dozens of demonstrators overnight in several cities across Jordan, residents said on Tuesday, in a clampdown on protests demanding government accountability after the deaths of nine coronavirus patients at a state hospital.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II issued a warning against civil strife, saying the negligence that led to the tragedy was unacceptable, but indicated that he will not change the government.

In east Amman security forces used teargas to disperse demonstrators in the low-income Nazzal neighbourhood. In the northern city of Ramtha on the border with Syria, several demonstrators were arrested at a roundabout.

There was no immediate comment from the government, but Interior Minister Mazen Al Faraya told state television on Monday that it was "farcical" that demonstrators were breaking a virus curfew and endangering public health.

In his first official comments after the hospital deaths that occurred in central Jordan on Saturday the king said government officials must be "more aware" and curb corruption.

"Let us close the doors on the civil strife I am seeing in my country,” he said in remarks to officials broadcast on state television.

“I ask everyone to deliver a message of right to Jordanian citizens and not let them be affected by people inside, and some outside, who are not comfortable with the Jordanian political position,” he said.

The king’s comments indicate the delicacy of the country's political and economic situation.

Jordan, a country of 10 million people, is in the middle of a recession and is witnessing a surge in coronavirus deaths and infections.

Poverty and worsening living standards contributed to demonstrations in 2018, in which members of the middle class participated in large numbers. The unrest prompted Gulf states to send between $750 million and $1billion in cash assistance to Jordan in the same year.

Demonstrations broke out over the past three days in neighbourhoods in east Amman and in other cities and outlying towns across Jordan.

The mostly young protesters called for the government to be removed and for pandemic rules to be scrapped, along with emergency laws invoked in March last year to help enforce the virus restrictions.

In Irbid, northern Jordan, hundreds of young men chanted on Sunday night: “Down with the government. We don't fear coronavirus."

The nine Covid-19 patients died at a government hospital in the city of Al Salt after oxygen supplies ran out.

The government is checking all other public hospitals to ensure the tragedy will not be repeated.

The hospital fiasco prompted the king to fire the health minister only days after he had replaced the interior and justice ministers for breaching coronavirus rules by attending a large banquet at a restaurant.

The king said negligence caused the deaths in Al Salt and hinted at corruption. But he made it clear that he would not replace the government, Jordan's 12th in the past 20 years, which he appointed in October.

“Until when can we bear the negligence? This is not culture. How did patronage and nepotism and corruption enter?”

“These are not Jordanian traits. Enough,” he said. “I don’t ask officials to resign. They exist to clean up their ministries of bad people.”

The king said that although coronavirus “numbers are sadly rising, I am optimistic that with our institutions and with the awareness of the people we will beat the coronavirus and the economic challenges”.

The authorities last week imposed new virus restrictions, halted Friday prayers and extended bans on movement and business to stem a renewed surge of the disease.

Health officials recorded 9,417 infections on Sunday and 82 deaths, the biggest official daily jump in infections since the start of the pandemic.

The 9,417 cases represent a whopping 19.4 per cent of all those who were tested for the virus on Sunday.