Despite jump in coronavirus cases, Jordan holding election

Amman has been unable to enforce full closure despite the spike in infections, experts say.

A man wears a protective face mask as he walks along the main market in downtown after the government eased the restrictions on movement aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus in Amman, Jordan (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)
A man wears a protective face mask as he walks along the main market in downtown after the government eased the restrictions on movement aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus in Amman, Jordan
Jordanians will head to the polls to elect a new parliament on November 10, even though the Hashemite kingdom has been experiencing an unprecedented jump in COVID-19 infections, with as many as 3,000 persons per day coming down with the virus.
The government has announced a four-day lockdown to start next week, a day after the election results are announced. Around 4 million Jordanians are eligible to vote.
Mahmoud Kharabsheh, a lawyer and a former member of the Jordanian parliament, told The Media Line the election was a constitutional requirement and therefore there was no option but to hold it on the scheduled date.
“In view of the epidemiological developments in the kingdom, the government is trying to implement measures in line with those in force globally and in line with international health protocols, in order to contain the virus and control its spread,” he said.
The election will be held amid strict sanitary measures, as the government has prepared in advance, striking a balancing between holding the vote and safeguarding citizens’ health, Kharabsheh said.
Jordanian Health Minister Nathir Obeidat said at the beginning of the week the increase in COVID-19 infections was expected, and the kingdom must be prepared for even more.
Anwar Batieha, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, told The Media Line that the increase in coronavirus cases was normal, as epidemics begin with a few cases and then expand. “However, if people were more committed to social distancing, the rise in infection numbers would be flatter,” he added.
“And let’s not forget that Jordan took very strict measures in the beginning, but with or without them, the pandemic was going to eventually grow, as it has in the US, Europe and elsewhere. That’s the natural course of a global pandemic,” Batieha said.
He added that closing the borders had helped to contain the virus, but this was not a real solution, because the course of life must continue. “Social distancing helps to keep the increase in cases low, but we need to learn how to live with this virus, as we do with the hundreds of other viruses that exist.”
Thanks to tight measures, the number of infections was low early on, but now the virus was spreading after these measures were lifted, the professor said.
“I don’t think the situation threatens the [ability to function of the] medical sector in Jordan, as it’s prepared and properly equipped,” he said.
Batieha added, however, that medical services in the kingdom were suffering before the coronavirus crisis, and with the additional burden caused by the pandemic, “the health services provided in hospitals and medical centers have been reduced, and this has greatly affected a segment of the population.”
The epidemiological situation in the kingdom of some 10 million people is similar to that of counterparts in Europe, but the economy, which has been struggling for the past few years, has been hurt by the closures designed to stem the epidemic.
Mazen Irshaid, an Amman-based financial expert who writes for several Arab media outlets, told The Media Line that at this point the Jordanian government was unable to enforce a comprehensive curfew, but rather a four-day closure after the election, “which reflects the difficulty of making such critical decisions that significantly affect the economy.”
The closure that began on March 17 and lasted for more than two months damaged the economy enormously, as Jordan lacked the financial resources to help the damaged sectors, Irshaid explained.
“Despite that, Amman has borrowed $1.075 billion during the past three months, and recently the government expended about $1.25 billion to pay off an outstanding debt [a US-guaranteed Eurobond],” he said.
Irshaid said that Jordan was alternating between compensating damaged sectors, which was not entirely financially feasible, and paying the amounts due (more than $1 billion) on the state debt. “In addition, there’s a budget deficit that exceeded $1 billion during the first seven months of the year, which means that expenses exceeded revenues.”
The government was unable to enforce a curfew, as it needed all possible tax revenues from a functioning private sector, Irshaid said.
Sarah Swelem, an activist based in Amman, told The Media Line that the measures which were taken at the beginning of the pandemic were strict, “but the government is now depending on citizen’s awareness when it shouldn’t, as there are those who believe the virus is real, and other who are skeptical.”
Swelem suggested that the government hold educational lectures and seminars to spread awareness among citizens, especially in remote areas, and “tighten supervision on influential people” so they commit to the decisions under the Defense Law prohibiting all kinds of gatherings.
“The closures increased the sluggishness of the economy, especially in remote areas and for day laborers,” she continued. “The initial measures, as I said earlier, have had a very negative impact on the economy, so the government resorted to measures designed to prevent the economy from deteriorating.”
Farah Abdullah, an engineer based in Amman, told The Media Line that the situation in the kingdom was very difficult, where some of the biggest companies were suffering and laying off employees.
“I lost my job as the company I used to work for has closed. Currently, I make handicraft items to fill my time and have an income,” Abdullah said. “Not to mention how difficult it is to find a job nowadays.”
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