Last year was a crucial year for Algeria. This year could be the year of constructing a new Algeria thanks to the rediscovery of an active citizenship and political engagement by a large part of society and to the efforts made by the new president, Abdelajid Tebboune, to find a way to political legitimization far from military control. In a situation of turmoil where political institutions are trying to reconstruct a relationship of trust with the Algerian people – who now have as their priority the quest for democratic legitimacy, something that cannot be procrastinated – the COVID-19 pandemic, added to the current drop in oil-prices and the drought, risks bringing the country back into a very difficult situation.
Research done in mid-February 2020 by the Inserm Institute of Sorbonne University (French Institute for Health and Medical Research) evaluated that the main gates for coronavirus in Africa would be Algeria, Egypt and South Africa due to high air traffic with the contaminated Chinese provinces. The first confirmed case in Algeria on 25 February was an Italian worker probably linked to the oil & gas sector, but apart from this case, the prediction was exact. The same research also stated that these countries are among the best equipped on the continent to quickly detect and deal with new cases. Perhaps this is true for South Africa, but not so much for Algeria, where for a population estimated at 42 million people the Health Minister, Abderrahmane Benbouzid, declared on 16 March that the country has only “over 400 resuscitation beds”.
After the first case, the contagion’s progression has continued to be focused on two major areas: the Blida wilaya (province) and the capital, Algiers. Since mid-March President Abdelajid Tebboune first ordered closure of the schools and then of all cultural and sporting events and the mosques. Algeria opted for partial containment as early as 23 March when the country had 230 cases and 17 deaths confirmed. The confinement was first totally concentrated to the wilaya of Blida and partially that of Algiers (with a curfew from 7pm to 7am) before being gradually extended, first to nine wilayas, then to four others and finally to the whole territory since this Saturday, April 4. On 6 April, Algeria officially had 1320 people with COVID-19 and 152 deaths, with a worrying but still not severe progression of contagion. Curfew violators are liable to fines ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 dinars and three days' imprisonment. The partial lockdown is extended also to journalists and this has made workers for the independent journal El Watan denounce a “confinement of mass media” added to the health restrictions.
Currently the wilaya of Blida in the north of the country, near Algiers, is the only real hotspot for COVID-19 (40% of the cases are there). The epidemic spread here because of the link with Europe: after a week-long marriage celebration a family who took part in tested positive on their return to France. Again, the tradition of long and heavily attended social events became a new source of contamination: on 13 March, a lady from a big family in the city died. The burial was an excuse for all local notables, relatives and friends to not abide by the measures recommended by the authorities to avoid gatherings. As in other parts of the world, in Algeria the measures, even if still not as strict as Italy’s for example, are poorly respected. There are long queues in front of stores and food storehouses or where semolina, a commodity of primary necessity is sold in public places in several wilayas, giving rise to distressing scenes where the unawareness/carelessness of citizens is added to the very poor organization of sales operations. This is the result of the breach of trust between the rulers and the people, aggravated by an official communication that is often clumsy and insufficient. A deficit that cannot be filled by the awareness campaign entrusted only to the security services, since the fracture stems from decades of mistrust that is now difficult to manage with the usual methods, which moreover the authorities attempt in an unprecedentedly complex situation. The need, according to Algerian sociologist Mohamed Mebtoul, is “to deeply rework the notions of trust, of solidarity and collective responsibility which are for the future of our society the powerful weapons to build our citizenship claimed by the Hirak”.
On 20 March, the 57th Friday of Hirak – the popular movement that last year caused the resignation of the president in power since 1999 and has continued to take to the streets every Friday since 22 February 2019 demanding deep changes in the overall regime system – only police officers, most with masks, were present, deployed in the streets of the centre of Algiers. Apart from some initial resistance by the demonstrators, the appeals to the precautionary principle and to prudence brought about some results. But in this situation several Algerian citizens and international human rights NGOs called on the Algerian authorities for an “immediate” release of political and opinion detainees. The signers of the petition denounced “the unprecedented relentlessness against activists and journalists while the whole world is focused on the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
As for the economy, this pandemic is the crisis that Algeria really didn’t need. In fact, in addition to the pandemic there is also the drop in oil prices and the drought. Assuming a sustainable stable oil price of around $20, the budget deficit could double from $12.8 billion (calculated on a barrel at $50) to $25 billion. And if the government planned to cut imports by half ($41.39 billion in 2019), including of food and animal products, finally encouraging domestic production – a diversification in economic measures for a long time awaited – the drought that has been raging for several months will not only impact on this production, but will also create tensions regarding the distribution of drinking water. A situation that even without coronavirus the Prime Minister, Abdleaziz Djerad, considered “catastrophic in every respect”.