COVID-19 in the Maghreb

Coronavirus and Morocco's "peak national solidarity"

The fact that the people of Morocco have responded with such maturity and responsibility to the protective measures imposed by the government to contain the coronavirus pandemic is a historic moment for the country, says Moroccan political scientist Mohamed Taifouri

Having witnessed the speed with which the coronavirus swept through leading industrialised countries in Europe, bringing their economies to their knees and putting their highly developed health systems almost entirely out of action, authorities in Morocco quickly realised the extent of the threat posed by COVID-19.

The powerlessness of European states when faced with the advance of this pernicious virus conveyed an image more commonly associated with developing countries. The Moroccan authorities responded by rolling out a prevention plan that was built on a detailed succession of resolutions, steps and measures. The objective was to cushion the impact of the pandemic and to mitigate the repercussions for public life across the country.

The first link in the chain of measures was to evacuate Moroccan citizens trapped in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Then everything seemed to happen at once: schools were closed, places of worship, cafes and restaurants were shut down, sporting, cultural and political activities, as well as all major events were banned, a special fund to counteract the impact of the coronavirus pandemic was set up and a state of emergency declared for a month.

Co-operation from the people

To ensure optimum implementation of the anti-pandemic measures, it was inevitable that the army would appear on the streets of the kingdom. After all, the authorities were well aware that they had neither the infrastructure nor the logistical wherewithal to meet the pandemic head on.

Overall, the people in Morocco were quite willing to accept the measures introduced, despite the restrictions in rights and liberties that went with them. Everyday mobility was restricted to a limited number of people, among other things in cases where travel is essential for work reasons.

Moroccan military patrolling the streets of Rabat on 22 April 2020 (photo: Imago Images/Xinhua)
Respect and willing acceptance by the civilian population: to ensure optimum implementation of the anti-pandemic measures, it was inevitable that the army would appear on the streets of the kingdom. After all, the authorities were well aware that they had neither the infrastructure nor the logistical wherewithal to meet the pandemic head on

Most Moroccans, however, have only been permitted to leave their homes in urgent and exceptional cases. Moreover, they must have a stamped, official permit to do so. Any violation of this restriction is punishable by a prison sentence of up to three months or a fine that equates to about US$140.

Rare unity

These tough restrictions, which are unprecedented for the younger generation in Morocco, have done nothing to dent the general approval and acceptance of the state's prevention plan to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists and journalists are even talking about 'peak national solidarity', the like of which has not been seen in Morocco since the Green March 45 years ago.

Even the people and movements that belong to the radical wing of the opposition have put their political differences aside and are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the government. In so doing, they are showing their respect for the way the crisis is being handled.

People in Morocco are also showing respect for what the government and security forces, which are monitoring the implementation of measures during this public health emergency, are doing. In this way – and after all the negative developments and notes of discord that have weighed on the relationship between the people and those that represent the power of state during the period following the "Moroccan Spring" when democratic rights were pushed back – they are starting a new chapter.

In the present situation, the image of authority portrayed by servants of the state is unfamiliar because it is light years away from the one that is traditionally associated with them, namely one of violence and oppression. The Moroccan Minister of the Interior has readily accepted that there have been isolated exceptions to this rule (for example, one civil servant slapped a citizen in the face) and declared that such transgressions are the result of stress and overwork.

Special fund to cushion the impact of the crisis

The government is also doing its best to cushion the impact of the measures it has introduced to fight the pandemic. To this end, it is using a recently set up special fund to manage the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, it has agreed on a series of measures that seek to benefit companies and all economic activities affected by the virus.

It has also launched a package of social measures, first and foremost, loss of earnings compensation for people who are dependent on the social security system. In addition, emergency financial aid of between US$75 and $180 per family.

Moroccan police in Rabat instructing a resident in the capital to return home on 27 March 2020 (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
United in fighting the pandemic: in the present situation, the image of authority portrayed by servants of the state is unfamiliar because it is light years away from the one that is traditionally associated with them, namely one of violence and oppression

Regardless of how Morocco's fight against the coronavirus pandemic pans out, the state's early vigilance compared with its neighbours Spain, Italy and France is certainly laudable.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the state was realistic about its capabilities and raised the alarm early on. It made fateful, unprecedented decisions that have resulted in a very special moment of national solidarity.

However, as special as this moment may be, it should certainly not stop us looking at the other side of the coin. After all, this pandemic has uncovered uncomfortable truths about the country's health policy with its "sectoral programmes" and "integrated plans", consistently lauded by one health minister after another for 20 years now.

The coronavirus has revealed the desolate reality of this sector, which the government previously considered unproductive. This recently led the government to cut health spending in the budget despite the fact that the health sector is notoriously dogged by problems. Here too, it demonstrated that it is in thrall to a policy of austerity and the rules of good governance.

The education sector did not come off well either when the government was left with no other choice but to agree a distance learning system. It did so because it feared a repeat of the scenario that arose in other countries where schools became incubators for the spread of the virus.

Shattering the illusion of digital learning in Morocco

This immediately revealed massive deficits at all levels: the country has neither the logistical capacities, the technical equipment, the appropriately qualified personnel, nor indeed all the other things that are needed to ensure the success of digital schooling.

The reality has shattered the illusion of digital learning propagated by the Ministry for Education. Ultimately, it has had to resort to national television channels to provide tuition. The spatial and social disparities within the Moroccan school system mean that so far, a digital approach to teaching seems hopeless.

Ever since the powers that be in Morocco began continuously rolling back the achievements of the "Moroccan Spring" – i.e. greater political awareness and participation – people have repeatedly warned of a ticking time bomb in Moroccan society. While the country's rulers still have enough scope to continue to work the political field using the same old methods they have always used – gerrymandering, media control and the manipulation of electoral lists – they have to take great care that it doesn't become too obvious on the democratic playing field.

Manipulative shadows

It's the same thing in the economic sector, where numbers and percentages are doctored and citizens are fed half-truths to keep up appearances.

On the other hand, civil society is setting boundaries for all of this: after all, policies based on patching things up here and there and intermittent injections of sedatives quickly lose their impact in such a society. The "Hirak movement" in the Rif region and the protests in Jerada and the southeast of the country are examples of how limited the government's scope for manipulation is on the civil society front.

The fact that the people of Morocco have responded with such maturity and responsibility to the protective measures introduced by the state to overcome this crisis is a historic moment for the country. They have shown themselves both willing and able to trust their state and its institutions as long as the latter embody real civic values and are more than just a ruling system.

Mohamed Taifouri

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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