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How Saudi Arabia kept COVID-19 at bay

Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for two months, buying precious time to build up its defences. (AFP)
Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for two months, buying precious time to build up its defences. (AFP)
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23 Sep 2020 05:09:34 GMT9
23 Sep 2020 05:09:34 GMT9
  • From its peak in June, Saudi Arabia’s daily new cases have dropped below 500

Jonathan Gornall

LONDON: At the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, June 17 passed unremarked on, as just another day in Saudi Arabia’s hard-fought battle against the worst public health crisis the country has ever seen.

In future, however, June 17 might be seen as an appropriate date for the people of Saudi Arabia to remember their nation’s epic battle against the microscopic enemy that brought the world to its knees — for that was the day the number of daily new cases in the Kingdom peaked.

At the time, the day’s tally of 4,919 cases seemed daunting. In fact, the tide of battle had turned in favor of the Kingdom. After that, slowly but steadily the number began to drop. From its first case on March 2, Saudi Arabia had broken the back of the pandemic in just 107 days.

COVID-19 emerged in China in early January, spreading rapidly around the world, but Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for two months, buying precious time to build up its defences.

“We were luckier than many other countries because our cases started a little bit later,” said Dr. Hani Jokhdar, deputy minister for public health, speaking in August at the Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit. “This gave us a small opportunity to develop our systems, watching and observing what was happening in the rest of the world.”

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries in the world to set up laboratories to test for the coronavirus, with tests available for anyone with symptoms from March 5 onward. Over the next five months more than five million would be carried out.

‘We witness the fruits of our labor today.’

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Aly

In February, travel to and from infected countries was quickly curtailed, culminating in a ban on all international flights by March 15. Restrictions on internal travel followed shortly after.

And on Feb. 27, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented but necessary step of suspending Umrah visas for foreign pilgrims. The Kingdom would also take the lead in closing mosques.

Saudi Arabia’s defences were finally breached on March 2, thanks to two citizens who had returned home infected from Bahrain, neglecting to mention that their journeys had begun in Iran, a country already in the grip of the disease.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the last of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states to be hit by the virus, was better prepared than many countries for what was coming. A raft of apps — some established, others developed quickly in the face of the new disease — allowed citizens and residents to report symptoms, book virtual appointments and access testing.

Such technology would also play a vital role in the management of Hajj. As the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, from the outset Saudi Arabia was keenly aware of the consequences for itself, the region and the entire planet if it failed to manage the pilgrimage effectively.

This year the decision was taken to limit numbers to a symbolic 1,000, selected from nationals and foreigners already in the country. Careful screening, monitoring and meticulous management ensured that, in this remarkable year, Hajj passed off without a single case of COVID-19.

Throughout, Saudi Arabia’s battle against the virus has been led from the very top. On March 19, King Salman addressed the nation on television. The Kingdom, he said, “continues to take all precautionary measures to confront this pandemic and limit its effects. We depend on the aid of God Almighty, then on deploying our full capabilities, supported by your strong determination to face adversity with the steadfastness of believers at the forefront.”

Key Dates

  • 1

    Saudi Arabia launches a public information campaign on Jan. 28, holds the first meeting of the COVID-19 Follow-Up Committee on Feb. 1, and bans travel to China on Feb. 6.

    Timeline Image Jan. 28-Feb. 6
  • 2

    Saudi Arabia reports its first case of the new coronavirus, a man who traveled from Iran via Bahrain over the King Fahd Causeway. He is immediately quarantined and his contacts are tested.

    Timeline Image March 2
  • 3

    As Saudi Arabia identifies its second case of COVID-19, the Kingdom suspends all Umrah pilgrimages, extending the ban on pilgrims from overseas announced on Feb. 27 to include Saudi residents.

    Timeline Image March 4
  • 4

    Saudi Arabia closes all schools and universities, continuing education through a virtual school platform set up by the Ministry of Education. The Qatif governorate, where all of the Kingdom’s 11 cases to date are located, is closed off.

    Timeline Image March 8
  • 5

    Saudi Arabia bans international flights and orders the closure of malls, restaurants and public parks, four days after the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global pandemic.

    Timeline Image March 15
  • 6

    Saudi Arabia announces a SR120 billion ($32 billion) aid package in order to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the Kingdom’s economy.

  • 7

    King Salman issues an order imposing a 21-day curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., with exemptions for health staff, utility workers, food deliveries and media.

    Timeline Image March 23
  • 8

    Saudi Arabia organizes an extraordinary virtual summit of G20 leaders, hosted by King Salman in Riyadh, to discuss the global response to the pandemic.

    Timeline Image March 26
  • 9

    A 24-hour curfew is extended from Makkah, Madinah and parts of Jeddah to Riyadh, Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran, Hofuf, Taif, Qatif and Alkhobar, allowing people out only for essentials between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.

    Timeline Image April 6
  • 10

    The 24-hour curfew, relaxed in the daytime on April 26 in several areas, is reimposed for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.

    Timeline Image May 13
  • 11

    The number of daily cases peaks at 4,919 in one 24-hour period, while the number of daily deaths peaks at 58 on July 5.

    Timeline Image June 17
  • 12

    Saudi Arabia conducts the Hajj pilgrimage under strict health measures for 1,000 pilgrims, all of whom were tested and quarantined before completing it. No COVID-19 cases are detected among the pilgrims.

    Timeline Image July 29-31
  • 13

    The Saudi Health Ministry announces that Chinese company CanSino Biologics will launch a Phase 3 clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in the Kingdom.

    Timeline Image Aug. 9

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the world is out of the woods yet. But as the global daily tally of cases continues to rise, hitting a record high of over 316,000 on Sept. 11, for a total of 31.2 million cases and 965,372 deaths, so Saudi Arabia’s daily caseload continues to shrink, even as restrictions have been relaxed and life in the country has begun to return to normal.

On Sunday, the number of daily new cases dropped below 500 for the first time in five months. As Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Aly said: “We witness the fruits of our labor today.” The “huge improvement,” he added, was thanks to “everyone’s efforts.”

Let there be no doubt that, with a total of 329,271 cases and 4,458 deaths recorded by Sunday, Saudi Arabia has suffered in 2020.

But one has only to look at how badly many other states have fared — including some of the most powerful and advanced countries in the world — to realize just how much worse this terrible year might have been for the Kingdom, were it not for its preparations and timely and decisive actions.

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