Saudi Arabia’s handling of COVID-19 has been exemplary
Forbes magazine last month reported on the 100 safest countries in the world in terms of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Saudi Arabia ranked 13th, with the only Arab country to rank higher being the UAE in ninth place. The rankings, by the Deep Knowledge Group, are not only based on how many COVID-19 infections or deaths there have been in each country. Rather, it is a complex series of assessments on multiple medical, economic and political factors.
According to the authors of the report, they analyzed whether there is the political will and social acceptance of quarantine and lockdown measures, good cooperation between the national and local governments, and if a nation has good monitoring and detection and a strong medical system. Another factor is how vulnerable a country is to economic dislocation due to COVID-19, along with how well equipped it is to handle emergencies.
The report stated: “Deep Knowledge Group’s new COVID-19 special analytical case study is designed to classify, analyze and rank the economic, social and health stability achieved by each of the 250 countries and regions included in its analysis, as well as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats or risks that they present in the battle against the global health and economic crisis triggered by COVID-19.”
It looked at more than 140 parameters and considered more than 35,000 data points.
The group first issued the report in June based on 130 quantitative and qualitative parameters and more than 11,400 data points in categories like quarantine efficiency, monitoring and detection, health readiness, and government efficiency. Saudi Arabia came in at 17th place at that time.
The safest country in the world for COVID-19, according to the recent report, is Germany. It is followed closely by New Zealand and South Korea. Switzerland, which was first, has dropped back to fourth. Japan is fifth and Australia and China are sixth and seventh, respectively.
Saudi Arabia has been impressive in the way it has handled the pandemic from the beginning. It took immediate and stern measures as soon as it reported its first case on March 2 — a man who had traveled from Iran via Bahrain over the King Fahd Causeway. He was immediately quarantined and his contacts were tested. By then, Saudi Arabia had already launched a public information campaign (Jan. 28), held the first meeting of the COVID-19 Follow-Up Committee (Feb. 1), banned travel to China (Feb. 6) and suspended Umrah for overseas pilgrims (Feb. 27), which was then extended to Saudi nationals and expats (March 4). This was a time when many countries were still debating the seriousness of the outbreak and whether there was a need to quarantine. With the little and confusing information available about the virus at that time, it was a period of uncertainty and panic, which needed firmness and leadership in response. This was demonstrated by Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom took immediate and stern measures as soon as it reported its first case on March 2.
In March, Saudi Arabia took several drastic measures. It closed its schools and universities, continuing education through a virtual platform set up by the Ministry of Education in a relatively short time and with good efficiency under the circumstances. It then banned international flights and ordered the closure of malls, restaurants and public parks within four days of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. It followed that by imposing a 21-day curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m,, with exemptions for health staff, utility workers, food deliveries and the media. The curfew was then extended to 24 hours a day in April, allowing people out of their homes only for essential trips between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.
During the curfew, delivery services were provided for almost everything and applications were created to facilitate orders and services at home. The Ministry of Health conducted field (PCR) tests in various locations, held a daily press conference to update the public and answer questions and concerns, and went all-out in providing health care, which established transparency and confidence, thus comforting people into complying with the instructions.
Of course, enforcing penalties for those who breached the curfew — and later the rules on social distancing and the wearing of face masks — contributed to the compliance and the low number of infections and deaths. However, there were surges in the numbers following Eid gatherings and as employees returned to their offices. When the social distancing restrictions were first relaxed, we continued to see high numbers, but this has now dropped considerably.
Economically, the government launched several financial support packages and initiatives to help firms — especially small and medium-sized enterprises that had suffered tremendously during this crisis — pay their employees and sustain their businesses.
Then came the difficult decision on Hajj. The Saudi leadership made the responsible decision to conduct the Hajj pilgrimage under strict health measures for only about 1,000 pilgrims, who were tested and quarantined before completing it, and thankfully no COVID-19 cases were detected among them. The decision and the experience were successful and were praised by the World Health Organization.
The government’s efforts to raise awareness continue. It has intensified testing, with specialized labs and units across the country, launched applications and call numbers to help people during quarantine and follow-up, and provided medical care in hospitals, as well as conducting research and cooperating with the international community on developing a vaccine. Overall, Saudi Arabia has been exemplary in how it has handled the pandemic.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1