Return of lockdowns

Saudi Arabia and neighbours re-impose coronavirus restrictions

Saudi Arabia has entered another lockdown amid a surge in the number of coronavirus cases as the vaccination campaign continues to be sluggish.

The government on Thursday ordered all weddings and parties suspended for 30 days. It closed down all shopping malls, gyms and other locations for 10 days. Indoor dining will also be banned for at least 10 days, with authorities warning that these measures could be extended. The interior ministry said in a statement that the new restrictions are meant to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus, citing “the emergence of indicators of an increase in the epidemic curve in some regions of Saudi Arabia that were caused by lax implementation of the preventive and precautionary measures”.

Authorities on Tuesday suspended entry to the kingdom from 20 countries, except for diplomats, Saudi citizens, medical practitioners and their families, to help limit the virus spread. The list on banned countries includes people arriving from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, India and Pakistan.

Health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah on Sunday warned that the government would be forced to take these measures as he lamented the people’s lack of compliance to health precautions. “I ask you to help us preserve the gains we have made in combating the coronavirus. This is a very difficult stage”, he said in an appeal to the public aired on state television. “The second wave of the pandemic is bigger than the first and we’re not immune to it. we must take the pandemic seriously”.

Saudi Arabia recorded a peak of coronavirus cases last June. Numbers of daily reported cases came down under 100 in early January, but reported over 300 cases on Wednesday alone, according to the ministry’s Covid-19 dashboard. The kingdom has reported over 369,000 cases and 6,380 deaths of the virus so far.

Governors of Saudi provinces ordered higher levels of enforcement for coronavirus containment measures in government offices and public places after Rabiah’s appeal. The measures include checking that visitors are using the official contact tracing smartphone app known as Tawakkalna. The app’s servers appeared to crash on Wednesday under the sudden increase of users, forcing officials to depend on SMS as a backup until the app’s functionality is restored.

Re-imposing wide restrictions has seemed inevitable after the health ministry said Monday that the number of cases jumped by 200% compared with early January. The majority of that jump can be traced to people attending large social gatherings. Some observers have blamed the public for failing to comply with protective measures, but it is hard to escape the reality that the lack of compliance is a result of weak enforcement and inconsistent messaging by different parts of the government.

Days before the health minister urged people to wear masks and avoid gatherings, the Public Investment Fund hosted its annual conference with 200 people attending in person in a closed ballroom even though a 50-person limit on gatherings was supposedly in place at the time. In another part of Riyadh, the General Entertainment Authority was promoting and selling tickets for a festival with music concerts and pop-up restaurants since the start of the new year.

“Malls, restaurants and coffee shops are back as they were before the pandemic and we are not seeing any deterrence to those who don’t take the health measures seriously. The return of social and entertainment activities in this intensive manner is something that must be strictly controlled to avoid dangerous possibilities. We should also limit visits to government departments for paperwork except when absolutely necessary and deal with that remotely as we have done before”, said Humoud Abutalib, a physician who writes a column for Okaz. “Saying this is not an over-the-top exaggeration because the risk remains if cases continue to go up. It takes just one moment for infections to explode and we return to square one if we don’t control society’s behaviour, enforce instructions and punish the reckless.”

Just take a look at this video from a wedding held in Mecca last month. Easily more than 50 people there and almost no masks to be seen (start at 37:20):

Other Gulf states have also imposed new restrictions. 

Kuwait ordered a two-week ban on foreigners arriving in the country and most businesses were told to close from 8pm to 5am beginning Sunday for at least 30 days. Health clubs, spas and gyms are shut down and there will be no celebrations to mark the country’s National Day on February 25th. In Qatar, a maximum of five people is allowed to gather indoors and up to 15 people outdoors during visits, funerals and gatherings. Weddings can only be held at home: ten people allowed indoors and 20 people in open spaces.

In the United Arab Emirates, all of Dubai’s bars and pubs will be closed for the rest of February and other activities limited after a spike in cases as a result of welcoming travellers from around the world during the holidays period.

However, there is a huge difference between the UAE and its neighbours when it comes to the rate of vaccination. The UAE has administered 3.5m doses for a rate of 37 per 100 people, compared with Saudi Arabia where only 440,000 doses were administered for a rate of 1.3 per 100 people. The Emirates is benefiting from early investment in vaccine development, distribution and partnerships with manufacturers like China’s Sinopharm.

As Andrew Mills noted in his Connect the Gulf newsletter (subscribe to get a smart weekly roundup of the latest news in the GCC):

A group of Dubai logistics giants have formed an alliance to boost the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world, vowing to “equitably distribute” 2 billion vaccines via Dubai’s transit hubs in 2021. Neighbouring Abu Dhabi formed a similar vaccine distribution hub in November. The UAE has plans to begin manufacturing the vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm later this year.

The kingdom’s vaccination campaign has been hampered by the constrained supply of the only vaccine approved by Saudi authorities so far by Pfizer-BioNTech. Health minister Rabiah said Wednesday that huge quantities of Covid-19 vaccines from various suppliers would arrive and be rolled out during the next few days. The Serum Institute of India (SII) said it would supply Saudi Arabia with 3 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on behalf of the British drugmaker during February.

It has been one year since Saudi Arabia evacuated ten students from the Chinese city of Wuhan at the outset of the pandemic. As people in the kingdom endure another lockdown and wait for vaccinations to ramp up, one place where they can still gather is mosques. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has ordered imams to dedicate their Friday sermons today for the importance of adhering to health precautions to stop further spread of the coronavirus.