Morocco’s Eruption from Deconfinement Poses Potential COVID-19 Surge

Morocco’s Eruption from Deconfinement Poses Potential COVID-19 Surge

A woman walking near the famous Jamaa El Fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco.
A woman walking near the famous Jamaa El Fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Although Morocco’s state of emergency remains in effect through July 8, the kingdom launched its attempt at “deconfinement” in stages beginning last Thursday, June 25.  Having divided the country into Zone 1 and Zone 2, the government lifted travel restrictions and shop closures on Zone 1, but kept most of the restrictions, except the curfew, in effect within Zone 2. People have not reacted well, suggesting a potential surge in cases.  

With the announcement of “deconfinement,” many especially intellectuals have criticized the lack of logic in much of what the government has decided. Among other things, it doesn’t seem supported by the numbers. Putting Casablanca — the biggest hotbed of infections — in Zone 1, but Marrakech with just over half the cases in Zone 2, just doesn’t seem rational to many.  Moreover, announcing changes only at the last minute, without managing expectations or allowing businesses to plan their reopenings based on dates and data, has caused consternation to many, especially in the tourism sector. 

In fact, in May and June Moroccan web-TV station Asafu [the Torch] invited Nadia Fattah Alaoui, the Minister of Tourism, or her representative to come on a show and talk with tourism professionals about the challenges Morocco faces and the factors under consideration in the Ministry to reopen and reinvigorate the sector that is the livelihood for so many.  Despite my numerous exchanges by email, Whatsapp, and follow-up over one month with high-level ministry personnel, I was rebuffed, sotto voce, from the highest level.  

“Radio silence” some have dubbed it. With no official announcements since May, and the most recent post on the Ministry’s Facebook page in 2016, radio silence from a Ministry that regulates a sector that contributes anywhere from 9-15% of GDP, depending on how you count it, is simply unacceptable. 

Until recently, Marrakech was the second hotbed of infections, but in the last week or so it has been eclipsed by Rabat-Salé-Kenitra.  Over the weekend I went to see how deconfinement is progressing in the center of Marrakech and to document what is happening.  

Marrakech, designated Zone 2, is, ostensibly, still in partial confinement. But to my dismay, I found the situation in the medina worse than I had expected from my standpoint as a lifetime cultural anthropologist and a journalist with many years of experience in Morocco. 

On Saturday, I ventured into what was, until March, one of the busiest squares in the entire world, Djemaa el Fna.  In the heart of the medina, Djemaa el Fna used to be the vibrant epicenter of tourism in the ochre city, a hodgepodge of street performers, snake charmers, henna ladies, food stands, herbalists, colorful water sellers, Gnawa musicians, Amazigh musicians, legions of orange juice stands, monkeys in diapers, and guys demonstrating the latest in neon-lighted, flying kids toys, all while thousands of locals and Moroccan and foreign tourists strolled by.  

While the center of the square was indeed still empty on Saturday, many of the drink stands were opening up and in the labyrinth of souks behind the square, many shops were already open for business or getting ready to open up again, doing their last-minute cleaning, repairs, and minor construction.  

There were some people in the sprawling souks, although some of the tiny streets were still eerily empty.  However, one of the main pedestrian streets leading to Djemaa El Fna, le Prince, was bustling with people, with shops and snack bars on both sides open and calling out for business. 

Despite social distancing and mask-wearing still mandatory in Marrakech, as I walked around there was very little of that.  People strolled and stood in close proximity to total strangers, passing by with only the usual close single-digit-inch personal distance which is their normal custom.  People jostled each other as they browsed through piles of clothing on a cart or gazed in a shop window.  

The several cafes that were open made no pretense of separating tables or people.  Waiters wearing masks around their chins hovered over seated customers, many of whom also wore their masks around their chins, if at all, taking drink orders, and within only one or two feet of each other.  

Even after three months of being required to keep a distance of more than a meter from others when outside, with bright colored floor markings in supermarkets and pharmacies, social distancing is anathema to Moroccans and still entirely counter-culture. Worse, people absolutely refuse to wear masks properly if at all, despite it being required.  

Out of the official 12,385 total cases, there have allegedly been only 225 deaths, yielding a death rate of about 1.8%. 659,895 have tested negative. So testing is up, but again out of a population of around 40 million people, it’s still likely to be undercounting the extent of the problem. 

Despite Morocco’s low official numbers (those are the only ones I can cite lest I fall afoul of the new “fake news” laws) and the lifting of lockdown on major portions of the kingdom, we are not out of the woods here at all. There has already been a spike of cases within the last week.   

The tiny village of Borous, about 15 km from Marrakech, witnessed unexpectedly a surge of cases last week. People from there had been traveling to Marrakech to sell their produce and livestock and brought the virus back to the village.  

In short, the situation here is very disturbing.  The utter failure in communication of the Moroccan government, especially to present guidance and manage expectations through an effective public awareness campaign that informs why the preventive measures continue to be needed as the economy opens up and informing the people what a reasonable plan for opening up is will have dire consequences.  

I am worried that in another ten days we will begin to have a massive surge of cases in Marrakech, well beyond the spike we have seen in the last week. I had hoped that the Moroccan government would learn something from the errors made by the White House that have effectively ensured the US has the highest case numbers and death toll anywhere in the world in a new resurgence, especially in southern states.  

While many US states are now halting their reopening and in particular re-closing restaurants and bars and other places where people gather in numbers, it seems that Morocco’s government is content to let Moroccans “do their own thing” with respect to reopening and disregard the preventive measures without repercussion.  

What this may mean though is that in the face of the government’s failure to safeguard people’s safety in opening the economy, Morocco’s king may once again have to take matters into his own hands. Unless people get back to basic transmission prevention measures, we may be seeing another lockdown in July.