Coronavirus: grim death toll undermines confidence in Jordan’s ability to cope

Surge in cases follows easing of lockdown measures

Muslims take part in Friday prayers at King Abdullah Mosque after the government allowed worshipers to break a blanket ban for an hour and walk to mosques, amid fears over rising numbers of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in downtown Amman, Jordan November 20, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
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The Alami money exchange in west Amman was buzzing with customers on Sunday, unlike most businesses in the capital hit by economic aftershocks from sharply rising coronavirus deaths.

"Basically, no one came in wanting to buy dinars in the last four days," one dealer at Alami told The National.

On Wednesday, coronavirus cases hit a daily record of almost 8,000 in the country of 10 million.

Over the summer, Jordan went from one of the countries with the fewest coronavirus cases to one of the highest per capita each day, after the previous government gave in to popular pressure and lifted bans that were in place to contain the virus.

With officially registered deaths from the pandemic this month averaging 60 a day, the government renewed coronavirus lockdown measures and curbs on commercial activity.

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Under government orders, passengers from any country worldwide cannot board a plane to Jordan before paying the equivalent of $60 for a Covid-19 test conducted on leaving the plane at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport.

The airport, opened in 2013, was boosted before the pandemic by budget European airlines, which after years of trying were allowed to fly into the kingdom, adding to the tourist influx.

But at the weekend the airport was nearly empty, and many passengers appeared to be Jordanian expatriates who had lost their jobs in the Gulf and elsewhere because of the pandemic and were returning home.

The new regulations and restrictions dimmed chances for resumption of tourism and other visitor traffic that sparks demand for local currency and increases the supply of dollars in the market.

At Alami, in the relatively affluent western part of Amman, one dollar fetches 70.92 piastres compared to 70.88 four days ago.

But while the government has defended the dinar for decades it is the day-to-day decline in the economy that worries people most.

Unemployment is at least 23 per cent and the World Bank expects the economy to shrink by 3.5 per cent this year.

Jamal Marar, a contractor in Amman, said Jordan’s handling of the coronavirus has “turned from a model into a cautionary tale".

Among the record cases on Wednesday were 1,623 foreign workers at two factories in Aqaba.

Jordanians still shun intensive labour jobs that go mostly to workers from Egypt and Pakistan, and Syrian refugees.

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Health Minister Nizar Obeidat announced the record numbers last week on state TV to highlight the gravity of the situation and urge people to adhere to social distancing.

The Health Ministry on Sunday said it registered 5,268 new cases and 64 fatalities, bringing the official number of infections to 183,429, with a death toll of 2,236.

A new government that came to office in October waited until parliamentary elections on November 10 before resuming a curfew, which runs from 10pm until morning.

But lack of adherence to health and social-distancing measures appears to be substantial.

At one large supermarket, many shoppers dropped mandatory masks from their noses.

At the Princess Alia thoroughfare, one microbus was breaking the 60kph speed limit, with nine passengers on board. None of them were wearing masks.

While some officials say Jordan seems to be hitting the top of the coronavirus curve and that cases will soon be on the wane, others say they are in a race against time to increase hospital readiness.

Wail Hayajneh, the head of the official virus response, said the health system was holding on, “but we are planning for the worst".