Jordan suffers Covid surge after early success against virus

By Michael Safi in Beirut and Jassar Al-Tahat in Amman

Rates of new Covid-19 cases in Jordan have risen to among the highest in the world a few months after the kingdom appeared to have eliminated community transmission of the virus and relaxed most public health restrictions.

As recently as three months ago, Jordan was counted alongside New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam as a coronavirus success story, after going weeks without detecting infections in the community and registering just over 1,100 cases and 11 deaths as of late July.

On Monday this week the country of 10 million people announced it had detected a daily record 5,877 cases – one of the highest per capita rates in the world – with more than 80,000 detected overall. Nearly 970 people have died.

“I believe that we are now witnessing the first wave – what we dealt with in the beginning was cluster cases,” said Ismail Matalka, the former dean of the school of medicine at Jordan University of Science and Technology.

Jordan’s early success was credited to swift, strict action, with authorities sealing off borders in mid-March and briefly placing citizens under one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the world – banning anyone from leaving the house for any reason but a medical emergency, punishable by up to one year in prison.

The measures were seen as necessary to compensate for a healthcare system the World Health Organization rated as one of the least prepared in the region to fight the virus.

The then prime minister, Omar Razzaz, said in July that the country had effectively eliminated community cases but that it was a question of “when, not if” another wave would hit.

Cases started to grow again even before the country reopened its borders to commercial flights in September, thought to be fuelled by truck drivers bringing goods from neighbouring Syria and Saudi Arabia, countries where the outbreak has been much larger.

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Authorities have tightened an evening curfew and reimposed lockdowns on Fridays – the first day of the weekend in the country, when many people would pray together in mosques and visit each other’s homes – but said the economy could not afford the same harsh measures that stamped out the virus between March and May.

Health experts in the country said the resurgent pandemic illustrated the limits of lockdowns and closed borders without a strong testing and contact-tracing system, especially when dealing with a lengthy pandemic.

“We went into full lockdown betting that the world would find a cure or a vaccine, as was the situation with other global pandemics, but that did not work,” said Khaled Rababah, the head of the nurses’ union.

“It is clear that we cannot isolate ourselves in a global pandemic,” Matalka said. “This simply cannot work as a main strategy since no country can sustain this for a long time.”

The country’s health ministry says PCR tests are returning positive rates between 17% and 23%. “But I estimate there is wider community spread and even higher positive rates, since these tests are still targeted,” Matalka said.