Jordan Keeps Coronavirus In Check With One Of The World's Strictest Lockdowns

Mar 25, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 8:19 am

The country of Jordan has implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world to stop the spread of the coronavirus, forcing most people to stay indoors and temporarily shutting down even grocery stores and pharmacies.

The Middle Eastern country with its 10 million residents has so far arrested more than 1,600 people for breaking the five-day-old curfew, which bans even going for walks or allowing pets outdoors.

After three days of complete lockdown, the government has commandeered city buses to deliver bread and other essentials directly to neighborhoods. It had considered ensuring distribution of cigarettes to smokers in a country with one of the highest smoking rates in the world.

On Tuesday, Jordan began allowing a limited reopening of small grocery stores for those between ages 16 and 60. It kept a ban on driving. Security forces say they have impounded more than 600 cars for breaching the ban.

The strict measures were taken after a less-severe curfew imposed the previous week was widely flouted, with some Jordanians continuing to hold weddings and other large gatherings.

"Especially in countries without very much intervention, the infection rate can rise really very fast," says Dr. Najwa Khuri-Bulos, an infectious disease specialist and adviser to Jordan's Ministry of Health. "There is a window period where you can interfere effectively. Hopefully doing these kinds of very strict measures will make it manageable."

As of Wednesday, the kingdom has 153 current confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, and the number has been rising steadily but slowly.

Jordan also hosts more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, and the global pandemic had sparked fears that the country's medical care system would be very quickly overloaded.

Last week, the country started placing arriving travelers, including Jordanians, in mandatory 14-day quarantine. About 5,000 people have been quarantined in hotels in the capital of Amman and the Dead Sea. Shortly after, it stopped all incoming and outgoing commercial flights.

The shutdown has had severe economic repercussions in the already poor country.

"Nobody is in denial about the potential economic cost of the shutdown, but authorities perhaps believe that this cost is to be paid 10 times down the line if the virus spreads further. So the main goal is to reduce the human toll," says Nasser bin Nasser, director of the Amman-based Middle East Scientific Institute for Security.

Bin Nasser says most Jordanians seem to be accepting the restrictions. "Maybe in the U.S. or other libertarian societies where freedom of movement is so ingrained in the national psyche this would be harder," he says.

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One of the strictest lockdowns in the world has been in Jordan. To avoid overloading the health care system, Jordan banned the entire country from even going for a walk. And police arrested those who disobeyed. NPR's Jane Arraf has more from Amman.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is the sound of a bread bus, an actual city bus going through neighborhoods in Jordan with plastic bags of flatbread taking up the seats instead of passengers. Jordan's curfew closed bakeries, grocery stores and even pharmacies. Security forces were deployed in the streets to make sure people didn't leave their homes, not even for a walk or to let pets out. It eased it a little Wednesday by allowing small grocery stores to open - and then only if they could walk there and if they were between the ages of 16 and 60. But apart from that, almost everyone is stuck indoors. A Jordanian infectious disease specialist, Dr. Najwa Khuri-Bulos, explains why it was important to act quickly.

NAJWA KHURI-BULOS: There is a window period when you can interfere - and effectively. And it seems this is the window period when you still are having a slow incremental rise in cases. If you wait until you have that quick peak, you may have missed the boat.

ARRAF: Jordan is seeing a steady but slow rise in infection rates. Along with about 10 million Jordanians, there are about 650,000 Syrian refugees in the country. Jordan's health care system is particularly vulnerable. Police have arrested 1,600 people for breaking the curfew since it was imposed Saturday.

Nasser bin Nasser, the head of the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security, says the government took drastic measures because people were still holding weddings and other big gatherings. He says, for the most part, Jordanians have accepted the new restrictions.

NASSER BIN NASSER: Maybe in the U.S. or more libertarian societies, where freedom of movement is so ingrained in the national psyche, this would be harder.

ARRAF: And as for the economic toll for practically shutting down an already poor country, Bin Nasser says the government has calculated that if they didn't take these measures and the country was overwhelmed with cases, the cost in money and lives would be much higher. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman.