The Kingdom of Morocco has been implementing a set of extremely severe measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country, so harsh that the Spanish newspaper El Paìs classified it at the top of the countries that adopted major restrictions in their fight against the pandemic. Up to April 5th, the country reported 990 cases and 69 deaths; the number of infections has grown exponentially in the last two weeks, the region of Casablanca being the most affected. The Moroccan response to the forthcoming crisis has been decisively forward-looking: from mid-March on, the government has not hesitated to take strong, progressive preventive measures, also involving the security forces and the army to have them respected. The state of a health emergency was declared on March 20, when all unnecessary movements and activities within the country were suspended; educational facilities and mosques had already been closed within the previous week, when the reported cases were still less than forty.
One of the reasons why such a strong and timely response was enacted lies in the will to reduce the burden on a national health system with a limited capacity to manage a wide health emergency due to lack of staff and infrastructure – only 1642 beds in ICUs are normally available in both the public and private sectors for more than 35.850,000 inhabitants (Source: Haut Commissaire au Plan- HCP). The remarkable deployment of forces also responds to the government’s strategy to send an effective, authoritative message to all strata of the population living in the kingdom. To do this, a comprehensive communication strategy has been devised: the state of emergency was announced by the Interior Minister in both Arabic and Moroccan dialect (Darija). Other important communications are equally broadcast or translated in Darija and in Amazigh, the Berber language that since 2011 represents one official language of the country. Furthermore, local sensitization campaigns have been organized to reach the rural population and invite citizens to practice social distancing, avoid public gatherings and respect hygiene standards.
Limiting movements inside and outside the kingdom was one of the most significant measures carried out to stem the infection: in this regard, Rabat almost completely suspended public and private transportation within the whole country, something that not even China had resorted to. When the reported cases were still just a few, Morocco undertook a progressive closure of its borders, starting from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. After flights to and from China, Italy, France, Spain and Algeria were halted, more and more destinations were added to the list until the complete closure of Moroccan airspace. Such a step was taken after having completed, in cooperation with foreign governments, a procedure allowing for the repatriation of thousands of tourists who had remained blocked in the country due to the trickle-down cancellations of their flights. As many as 25,000 French nationals were repatriated through the mobilization of 140 ad hoc flights.
The iconic picture of the empty Jemaa el-Fna, the central square in Marrakech which was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, is an omen of the strong blow to Moroccan economy that will result from this crisis: according to official data, tourism accounts for about 11% of the North-African kingdom’s GDP, with a record 13 million tourist arrivals registered in 2019.
After the latest developments, the Centre Marocain de Conjoncture, an independent monitoring center focused on the national economy, updated its forecasts for 2020, projecting a 25% decline for hotels and restaurantsas well as a 50% slowdown in the extractive industry due to the international economic recession – Morocco has a leading role in the production of phosphates worldwide. In the globalized framework of the current emergency, another matter of concern is represented by the tight economic relations interwoven between Rabat and Beijing: the crisis is having a strong impact on Moroccan imports from China, in particular for what concerns raw materials and production components, especially in the electronics industry. On the other hand, all those sectors depending on exports, such as the leading automotive industry, are in serious difficulties. The negative economic situation triggered by the implications of the pandemic goes hand-in-hand with a severe drought that is expected to lead to a strong decrease in grains production. This comprehensively leads to a rate of GDP growth that might not exceed 0.8% – a gloomy forecast, if we consider that at the beginning of this year, the growth rate was officially estimated around 3.5% (source: HCP).
In order to ease the socio-economic burden of the crisis, the government has devised measures to assist employees, small and micro enterprises, independent contractors and informal workers, whose activities are particularly affected by the current lockdown. To these ends, a special fund was created, to which both public and private entities are generously contributing; this fund is also aimed at improving medical infrastructures to deal with the emergency. National efforts are being complemented by international support: China recently sent the kingdom a plane full of medical equipment, while both the US and the UE have allocated financial aid to help Morocco manage the emergency. The World Bank has announced it will adapt the terms of a $275 million "Disaster Risk Management Development Policy Loan" to Morocco which has approved last December, so as to allow its immediate release to tackle the present health-related crisis.
Notwithstanding the timely and specific response of the government, the actual situation further increases social inequality in the country, with the risk of worsening it until reaching a breaking point. Should the lockdown continue in the medium term, the conditions in the poorest areas of the country, especially in the suburbs of the biggest cities, might become unbearable, thus triggering social unrest and disrespect for governmental provisions. This would partially neutralize the efforts to contain the spread of the virus, while also representing a serious challenge to the country’s sociopolitical stability. It follows that this crisis and its sociopolitical consequences are a serious testing ground for Moroccan government and for the functioning of national institutions as seen by citizens and the international audience. On the other hand, a positive management of this emergency would also be a chance for the kingdom to confirm its status as a vanguard country on the African continent.