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Drawing closer together in times of crisis

02.06.2020

Helena Speidel

This blog post was originally published by ForumZFD. You can find the original contribution here

 

Helena Speidel, peace advisor with forumZFD in Jordan, describes her impressions of a country in lockdown. In spite of all the difficulties coronavirus has inflicted on the people of Jordan, there is still reason for hope.

I am writing this article from my living room listening to the birds singing outside. At 7 in the morning, I could even hear a rooster crowing. A gas cylinder truck is just passing by. It's easy to recognise because it blasts out a Beethoven sonata which sort of takes me back to the ice-cream vans of my childhood days. On hearing the truck, we open the window and signal to the driver how many cylinders we would like to exchange. He stops the vehicle and carries the cylinders up to the apartments in need. This is how a large section of the city gets the gas required for cooking. I have no idea how the drivers manage to keep an eye out for all the windows. But it works.

A ghostly quiet has befallen the city

The fact that I can hear all these noises in the centre of Amman is thanks to the nation-wide shutdown. Jordan's capital city Amman is built on hills after which the various parts of the city are named. Every hill (or jabal in Arabic) has a different name. I live in Jabal al-Weibdeh, one of the oldest parts of Amman located virtually in the centre of town. From my apartment, I have a view of the valley with one of the main arterial roads leading directly downtown. Normally there’s always an ambient rumble rolling back up the valley from the immense volume of traffic. Thanks to shutdown, this noise is all but gone. A ghostly quiet has befallen the city. In fact, it's so quiet I can hear the roosters crowing during the morning rush hour. And that in a city with four million inhabitants.

This has been the state of affairs for nearly four weeks now. On 17 March, King Abdullah II of Jordan declared a state of emergency along with martial law. Ten days later, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz announced the nationwide shutdown and a blanket curfew. Sirens sounded at 7 the following morning in all cities to mark the start of the curfew. For the next four days, no one was allowed to leave their home, with the exception of the military, police and gas suppliers. On the very first evening, several hundred people were arrested for violating the government’s curfew rules; they risk being imprisoned for up to a year. At this point in time, Jordan had under 10 confirmed cases of COVID–19.

Greater confidence in government

On the eve of the blanket curfew, Amman was abuzz with a spirit of optimism. Since then the city has sealed itself off, preventing people from leaving or entering. The same goes for the other cities in Jordan. There were mass pilgrimages to the supermarkets to stock up on food and household goods for an uncertain period of time, leading the government to take action. Instead of opening all food shops for a short period and thus essentially triggering large gatherings, the government decided to ease lockdown restrictions on day four.

It’s a bit surprising that the very sociable Jordanians readily accepted lockdown and all that goes with it. But this has to do with the way the government has handled the situation. Every evening, a high-ranking politician or the king himself appears on TV to present the latest developments, findings and measures regarding COVID-19 in Jordan. This transparency has strengthened people's confidence in their government, something that had started to wane in recent years. At the same time, Jordan has learned from the past that it needs to respond swiftly to a crisis. Based on the recommendations put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), the government is educating people about behavioural rules and prevention measures.

In addition, the government has also assured us all there are sufficient supplies of food and gas for the next six months. The resources are on hand, but it’s getting them to the people that’s difficult. To maintain the food supply chain, many agricultural enterprises were given permission to work. Farm employees are continuing to do their jobs so that the country has fresh food. As of today, people in special geographically demarcated industrial zones in Jordan are also able to go back to work. Non-Jordanian staff employed in the textile industry will be able to do so as of tomorrow, provided they also live in these zones. This is because the general restrictions on mobility remain in force.

Migrant workers hardest hit by the crisis

Workers in industrial areas are often migrant workers. They are not Jordanian citizens and, together with unregistered refugees, count as the group of people hardest hit by the crisis. They do not appear in the country's population statistics and are thus overlooked by the supply infrastructure. The easing of restrictions will be a boon for many of them as they need their daily earnings to survive. Most migrant workers however find jobs in the informal sector where they toil under precarious conditions. Foreign nannies, housekeepers, construction workers and many others besides have lost their source of income but have no social security to fall back on. That is why many of them now urgently need the support of their community networks, and donations. While Jordan’s approximately seven million citizens can rely on the government's (albeit very limited) help, this is not the case for the other three million inhabitants, many of whom fled to Jordan from Syria, Iraq, Sudan or Yemen. Palestinian citizens in Jordan are also not eligible for additional support.

The curfew is adding to the strain on people. Domestic violence is on the rise. Often, a family of six lives in a two-room apartment. Whereas before the crisis, all of them were seldom together for several hours in the same place, now they are forced to co-habit in a very confined space. In comparison, we, the seconded peace advisers, are very privileged in that we often only share our living space with one other person, or even live alone. 

Citizen initiatives are the backbone of society

Some civil society organisations (CSOs) are also trying to assist the people affected. Shortly before the blanket curfew, one of our partner organisations (RAFD) in the north of the country distributed aid packages to people in need in their community in Mafraq and has since been collecting donations. This and other similar citizens’ initiatives in Jordan currently form the backbone of society. Sadly, many organisations lack the money or structures needed to roll out this kind of activity. To enable initiatives like this, we have to strengthen CSOs like RAFD. And as peace advisers in Jordan, that's precisely what we want to do.

Two of our partner organisations are working in Jordan's northwest Irbid area. At the moment, this region is under total shutdown again after several residents failed to heed the curfew. As a consequence, the military reasserted control and is now patrolling the area with soldiers and security forces. Our partner organisations are suffering in this situation, which is having a huge mental and emotional impact on their staff. As partners, we are currently doing all we can to support them.

Blue skies over Amman

The national economic forum is also engaged in lively discussions about what civil society in Jordan can do. A financial aid package for local CSOs is one of the options under consideration. This would relieve the strain or even save them from collapse. To get back to normal after the crisis, the forum has also issued a number of recommendations over the past few days that are now being debated in parliament.

For the time being, there is at least something positive to be gained from this situation: After all the economic and social difficulties the Jordanians have endured over the past 10 years, they are now rediscovering their pride in their country thanks to the decisive action taken by the government to tackle the corona pandemic. This can be seen in social media, for example, or in the fact that passers-by give soldiers small tokens of their appreciation. In the street and on social networks, people are saying: 'Stay in Jordan, it’s very safe'. And because of the ban on driving, the normally drab-grey skies over Amman are now a deep blue. 

Update:

In the meantime, the restrictions have been lifted almost completely. A blanket curfew for everyone is only in place on Fridays (weekend here). On all other days, people are allowed out of their homes up to 11 pm and driving restrictions have been lifted. However, the government has announced that Should a new surge in Covid 19 cases be detected, new lockdown measures will be put in place.

 

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Helena Speidel is a peace advisor at forumZFD in Jordan.