The Kingdom of Jordan has entered a crisis as COVID cases grow, and the public expresses discontent with the health infrastructure.
King Abdullah II visited a hospital in Salt this week after patients died due to a shortage of oxygen supplies. The unusual visit was a reminder of other times when the king has appeared in public to show his leadership, such as in January 2015 after ISIS murdered Jordanian pilot Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh.
The king’s visit was intended to show the public that he would personally demand answers from the hospital director. This could be an attempt to postpone the growing crisis, because it is highly unusual for a leader to visit a hospital amid angry crowds to sort things out himself. However, monarchies survive partly on symbolic gestures, and the kingdom has survived crises in the past through such methods.
The problems facing Jordan are growing, according to numerous accounts at Al-Ghad media in Jordan.
A report on Wednesday quoted citizens as complaining that they feel safer at home than in hospitals.
“I am ready to die in my house, rather than a hospital,” said one.
Public sentiment is that medical services are the “last option,” a harsh condemnation of medical infrastructure in the kingdom.
The last time I was in Jordan covering medical issues was several years ago to examine aid being given to Syrians and Iraqi refugees. The strain on the health system was obvious even then, despite aid and support that were provided.
The spread of COVID last year led Jordan to put its population under one of the harshest lockdowns globally, widely perceived as caused by Jordan not being able to cope with the huge health crises. When wealthy countries saw hospitals failing, Jordan – with all its economic problems – knew it was in trouble.
It has largely weathered the storm until now, but in an avalanche of articles this week, Jordan appeared to be in a real crisis.
One Al-Ghad article noted that doctors have warned against human gatherings leading to a serious setback during this “critical” period.
Other reports said the health system is “exhausted.”
Al-Ghad reported on Wednesday that “doctors and specialized experts have confirmed that the large outbreak of the coronavirus, especially the British mutation, has led to a rapid spread of the virus, and the registration of large infections that put the health system in a difficult situation. They pointed out the need for the government to take immediate measures to prevent high casualties and stop the flow to hospitals, whether public or private, and thus reduce occupancy rates in isolation departments that have reached 100% in some hospitals.”
It appears that “terrifying” numbers are being recorded daily. It may be that the numbers are even larger than is fully known because of the presence of refugees and others in the Kingdom, and because of underreporting. The concern is that the country could have more than 10,000 new cases a day.
Furthermore, the crisis could lead to postponement of local elections. One article warned that the Defense Law enacted last year has led to an erosion of limited democratic freedoms. The economy is also reeling. The Defense Law is a form of a state of emergency, giving the government sweeping powers. Members of the teachers union were arrested last August, alarming those who monitor human rights.
Jordan is a state in the middle of the Middle East’s swirling chaos. For years it weathered the storm of the Syrian conflict, enabling some limited support for Syrian rebels and enabling the US to establish the Tanf base inside Syria near the Jordan and Iraq borders. It welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, many of whom will not return and many of whom also have large numbers of children. Jordan calls them brothers but is straining to support them. It received aid from abroad, but the US administration of Donald Trump had less interest in such foreign aid. COVID has made Western donor-countries focus internally, not on Jordan.
Meanwhile, Jordan has had concerns over the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and Israel’s desire to annex parts of the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as taking Jordan for granted, and right-wing voices in Israel often bash the kingdom.
Moreover, Jordan seeks to preserve its rights and status quo in Jerusalem relating to the holy sites. The crown prince of Jordan was denied entry to Israel earlier this month, leading to a crisis.
At the same time, the kingdom often appears to come second in the new era of the Abraham Accords, as many Gulf states now want positive relations with Israel. Jordan has often been critical of these developments, such as when Netanyahu went to Oman in 2018 and Oman’s leader expressed support for including Israel in regional dialogue. Jordan says it wants movement on the two-state issue prior to amicable warmer relations.
COVID has changed all these calculations. Jordan already has many economic challenges and refugees, and now it has another crisis. The hundreds of cases a day, trending toward almost 1,000 new cases, is a worrying situation. However, Jordan is not alone with this problem, as countries in Central and Eastern Europe have also seen cases rise.
The absence of a vaccine solution for Jordan is also worrying.
The commonality between rising cases in Jordan and among Palestinians in the West Bank is likely linked.
There are no clear answers for what will be done if the cases continue to climb. Globally however, trends have shown that even when there is no intervention by government, cases rise and then fall in cycles, they don’t just exponentially rise forever.
The kingdom will have to wait and see, but the growing critique in media and among citizens could reveal cracks in society.