By Conor de Lion
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a Pandemic.’
Jordan is a welcoming nation by any standard. Traditional Arab hospitality reigns supreme and the kingdom’s proximity to Europe, Africa, Syria and the Gulf States has made it a crossroads for trade and ideas for thousands of years. More recently, it has offered refuge to millions of victims of conflict with nowhere else to go.
But now it’s closing its borders as never before. I had booked a flight back from London for this past Monday, but it seems like it may be many months before that happens.
Things moved swiftly in the past several days as the government showed impressive leadership in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. From late February, anyone entering the Kingdom by land or air was screened, and quarantined if necessary. Land borders were closed March 10, and on March 17, the last flights touched down at Queen Alia International Airport.
Whether rich or poor, it’s common for generations to live together, and it’s almost unheard of for young people to move out before they get married, or for grandparents not to have daily contact with their families.
Passengers were greeted by friendly but efficient soldiers who escorted everyone to begin two weeks of quarantine at plush hotels in Amman and at the Dead Sea. Even some friends in the diplomatic corps were not immune. As quarantines go, it doesn’t sound too bad — a stay at the five-star Kempinski Dead Sea with three good meals a day is more than manageable.
The majority of the 153 COVID-19 cases that had been reported in Jordan as of Tuesday afternoon were individuals who recently returned from abroad, or others who had contact with them.
Containment is a particular concern in a country with strong social cohesion. Whether rich or poor, it’s common for generations to live together, and it’s almost unheard of for young people to move out before they get married, or for grandparents not to have daily contact with their families. No one eats alone in Jordan.
Engagement parties and weddings with hundreds of guests are standard, and funerals are three-day events with many hundreds of people visiting the family home to pay respects. All of this has been banned in the last few days.
Schools and universities were closed last weekend for an initial two-week period. From March 18, malls were shut down, public transport was stopped, meetings of more than 10 people were prohibited, and everyone was advised to stay at home. Travel between the governates — Jordan’s administrative regions — was banned without a permit, and tanks moved to the crossing points to enforce it. Several of my colleagues who live and work across governate lines had problems getting through, even with the correct papers.
This is a nation that has given sanctuary to the refugees of a region’s bitter conflicts for more than 70 years. In a country of around 10 million, there are some 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees and 1.3 million from Syria.
But all that wasn’t enough: Too many people were ignoring recommendations. So on Friday, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz received King Abdullah II’s assent to enforce restrictions under the defense law — martial law under another name. From Saturday, all movement was prohibited. As of Tuesday, all shops are closed and a full curfew is in place, with essential food and fuel being delivered to households. Anyone who disobeys faces a year in prison.
A few weeks ago, this would have seemed like a move against democracy and freedom. But last week, as I watched and listened from London, I couldn’t help thinking how we could all do with strong leadership at a time of crisis. Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -0.04% was telling me that pubs not too far from where I sat were still heaving, and the message from the top was more dither than deal with an impending catastrophe. The U.K. has finally caught up with many of Jordan’s decisive actions, but delayed at what cost?
Dispatches from the front lines of a pandemic: ‘The sunbathers all seemed to be talking about coronavirus’: Australians brace for the end of summer — and the start of flu season
Of course, Jordan’s hospitality stretches far beyond a welcome for tourists and an embrace for expats. This is a nation that has given sanctuary to the refugees of a region’s bitter conflicts for more than 70 years. In a country of around 10 million, there are some 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees and 1.3 million Syrians — all this in a country that is slightly smaller than the state of Maine, with an acute water shortage and no oil. Do the math to scale those percentages for your own nation.
“The welfare of Jordan’s Syrian refugees is a central concern,” says Mohammad Rasoul Tarawneh, the secretary general of Jordan’s High Health Council and a member of the expert committee advising on COVID-19. “The important thing to note is that we plan for Jordanians and non-Jordanians. We’re all part of the same system.”
The majority of Syrian refugees live in local communities, crammed into poor housing, dependent on aid agencies or perhaps a small income from a young family member with a poorly paying job.
Many Syrians are housed in camps near the Syrian border. The largest such camp is Zaatari, jointly administered by the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), where almost 100,000 people shelter from desert-weather extremes in a sea of tarpaulin and plywood. But the majority of Syrian refugees live in local communities, crammed into poor housing, dependent on aid agencies or perhaps a small income from a young family member with a poorly paying job. The majority are women and children, and they are hungry, tired and traumatized.
“This is a population that is constantly stressed and vulnerable,” says Akiro Seita, the director of health at UNRWA, the U.N. agency with specific responsibility for the 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East who were displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967. They are spread across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.
Community health concerns are dominated by non-communicable diseases, making the rapidly approaching COVID-19 crisis even more ominous. “Hypertension, diabetes and lung disease are currently responsible for 70% to 80% of deaths,” says Seita.
It’s a lesson for all of us: Good health is expensive to maintain in our modern, urbanized world.
I asked one senior official why Jordan continues to host so many desperate people. Having lived and worked in Jordan for so many years, I knew the answer I would get: ‘These are people with shocking stories and nowhere else to go. What else could we do?’
Around 15% of Palestinian refugees live in 10 “camps,” which after up to seven decades of haphazard construction are more like breeze-block shanty towns, overcrowded, and with basic health and sanitary conditions. Those refugees who live in urban areas often inhabit equally challenging accommodations. Social distancing is simply not an option.
Long-term Palestinian refugees are not exactly integrated into Jordanian society, but they are connected. Many have citizenship and most who work are in daily interaction. Their health, and that of all refugees, is vital to the nation and the region. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the fates of the refugees and their Jordanian hosts are intertwined. The generosity of a nation with scant resources has made it more vulnerable than most.
“There was an influx of support when the Syrian refugee crisis began in 2011, and many dedicated aid workers remain in place,” says Tarawneh. “But nine years on, the situation has deteriorated drastically.”
Dispatches from the front lines of a pandemic: ‘The lack of an all-island response has also rattled communities on both sides of the Irish border’: Pubs close due to coronavirus, government issues new strict rules for funerals
Jordan’s Ministry of Health currently provides refugees with resources like vaccinations, family planning and secondary health care. But the burden of COVID-19 will soon be unbearable.
The Kingdom is looking for help: “We urgently need the assistance of international agencies and donors,” says Tarawneh. “These people need more than medical assistance. They need the basics like food and clothes, particularly as they can no longer earn due to the lockdown. So many of our local NGOs are helping, but resources are urgently needed.”
As the world faces a growing pandemic crisis, it would be foolish to ignore the health and welfare of refugee populations that are already weak and vulnerable.
I asked one senior official why Jordan continues to host so many desperate people. Having lived and worked in Jordan for so many years, I knew the answer I would get: “These are people with shocking stories and nowhere else to go. What else could we do?”
As Jordan settles into one of the most rigorous lockdowns in the global pandemic, its scant resources will be stretched beyond the limit. The world should recognize the nation’s generosity and humanity, and not allow it to suffer for it. Jordanians will do all they can to prevent COVID-19 from adding to the misery of refugees who have already endured so much. For this, they deserve our help.
Conor de Lion is a special advisor to HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Science for Peace.
If you would like to submit an essay on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic from your part of the world, please email Quentin Fottrell.
courtesy of Conor de Lion