At 3:00 pm on Wednesday March 25th, 2020, it is peak rush hour time Riyadh, but there is not a car to be seen, except for police vehicles patrolling the streets. Saudi Arabia had just issued new regulations, tightening its coronavirus counter-measures, two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The world is scrambling for ways to contain the outbreak, and, as a result, countries have taken different approaches to handling COVID-19. Nationwide curfew is one of the counter-measures to COVID-19. Has curfew been effective? Was there a significant drop of confirmed cases after its implementation? In Saudi Arabia, the answer to both is no. Without establishing a solid social distancing campaign, curfew is ineffective.
By April 20th, Saudi Arabia’s confirmed COVID-19 cases reached over ten thousand. Due to Saudi Arabia’s centralized authoritarian system, it was able to implement counter-measures to COVID-19 nationwide without any visible opposition. Saudi Arabia’s regime is authoritarian in nature, meaning, it makes decisions and the public is supposed to fully obey, otherwise they would be severely punished. The kingdom enforced a strict curfew in all of its cities starting March 23rd from 7pm to 6 am for 21 days. Two days later, the kingdom tightened measures in Riyadh, Mecca, and Medina by adding four hours to the curfew, starting from 3 pm to 6 am. Entry and exit from the three cities is also restricted, as well as movement between the provinces in general. The Saudi government escalated measures on April 2nd, placing a 24hr lockdown on Mecca and Medina. Additionally, the regime is using its law enforcement apparatus to enforce lockdown and curfew, issuing large fines and jail time for repeat offenders.
Despite the curfew and lockdown, the outbreak continued to spiral out of control in Saudi Arabia. The trend of reported cases is only moving upward, reflecting a constant increase in confirmed cases, even after the government expanded lockdown and partial curfew on April 4th. Curfew does not seem to cause a steady decrease in confirmed cases. To measure the effectiveness of curfew, John Hopkins University Center for Systems and Engineering (CSSE)’s indicates that there was a slight increase in detected coronavirus cases between March 25th and April 2nd , going from 133 cases a day to 165 cases. Relatively speaking, an increase by 32 cases is not significant, however, the curve reflecting the general trend of detected cases shows a steady increase. In fact, there was a spike in confirmed cases between April 8th and April 9th, going from 137 to 355, thus creating a sharp incline in the overall curve.
One reason for the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases is that curfew creates crowding issues in local grocery stores. Curfew regulations restrict residents movement to only small grocery stores in their neighborhoods. These local grocery stores can be easily crowded due to the small window of time for movement. Curfew, while intended to limit physical contact, unintentionally defeats it’s purpose.
Another possible reason for the rise in cases is the lack of a strong informational campaign on social distancing. This is not to say that the government did not initiate a social distancing campaign, and the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia also played a role in emphasizing the importance of social distancing. The government produced videos of prominent clerics urging social distancing, tying it to the Muslim duty of preserving life. The population, however, did not cooperate due to its deeply rooted social norms. The family-based Saudi society, resisted social distancing from family to the extent that the government had to suspend visitation rights of children of separated parents.
Early in the crisis, prior to curfew, school attendance was suspended, and work from home mandate was issued. The population treated the crisis as a government forced vacation as a result. It did not stop any family functions, such as weddings and other celebrations; they merely moved them from closed public spaces to their homes. Without a firm public understanding of the importance of social distancing, curfew loses its effectiveness. Saudi Arabia’s society utilizes its private sphere, their homes and property, for social interaction more so than in the public sphere. The existence of cultural norms, such as prioritizing private family intermingling over interacting with strangers in restaurants and other public spaces, made it difficult to comply with social distancing. If the Saudi government invested more on its social distancing campaign prior to curfew, the number of cases might have been different.
Saffanah Zaini is an M.A. student in International Security at George Mason University. Saffanah received her Bachelor’s degree from George Mason University in Government and International Relations with a minor in Middle East Studies. Saffanah worked as a freelance journalist for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper for a year in Washington D.C, where she covered and translated American news to Arabic. Saffanah’s most recent job experience was at the National Democratic Institute, where she assisted with drafting assessments for programs in West Bank and Gaza.
Photo can be found here.