Jordanians protest a year under a defense law with no gains, as COVID-19 cases spiral

Mural in Amman, Jordan saying

The Jordanian government's easing of a strict curfew last year led to the rapid spread of COVID-19, yet economic hardships continued. This graffiti, captured on a wall in Amman, reads: “Feed me [reads as “Vaccinate me”]. I’m hungry.” Image by Flycatchr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds of protestors from cities across Jordan have taken to the streets since Saturday, March 13 demanding accountability over the health sector’s negligence, the repeal of the draconian Defense Law, and a change of government. 

Anger at the government had been brewing for months because of conflicting policies and political confusion. What prompted the protests, however, were the deaths of nine people, including COVID-19 patients, because of oxygen-supply failures at a public hospital.

The protesters were met with teargas, followed by mass detentions

Local journalist Nidal Salama shared this clip of the clampdown:

[Police] dispersing protestors with teargas in the city of Aqaba

During the protests, as participants broadcast the events live on various social media channels, users across the country experienced slow internet connectivity and outages of specific features, including Facebook live streaming. Network throttling has become common practice with every instance of social unrest. Most local media outlets also failed to cover the uprisings as they were happening, resulting in a media blackout.

People demand the repeal of the defense [law] #Repeal_the_Defense_Law

The protests coincided with the first anniversary of the enactment of Jordan’s infamous Defense Law, which gave the government broad powers to issue orders under the pretext of helping contain the spread of the virus. But the law has proven to be futile: Between mid-March and the end of September, Jordan recorded a cumulative total of 61 deaths and 11,825 cases from COVID-19. On March 17, exactly a year after Jordan enacted the Defense Law, the kingdom recorded 56 deaths and 9,535 cases in just one day.

The country that was once praised for its handling of the pandemic is today reaching maximum capacity in its public and private hospitals, another reason protesters have been rallying across the kingdom.

A new government amid a pandemic

The ineffectiveness of the Defense Law was one thing that stoked the public’s anger. With the country’s economy badly hit by the pandemic, and unemployment rates nearing 25 per cent, the selective application of the crippling law has been a liability.

In early October, the parliament came to the end of its four-year term, leading to its dissolution, followed by the routine resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, as stipulated by the constitution. A new prime minister,  the King’s former aide, Bisher Al-Khasawneh, was appointed and he announced the following day that the country would go under a four-day total lockdown. Many questioned the government’s insistence to proceed with the elections despite rising COVID-19 cases.

In mid-November, a new parliament was sworn in, shadowed by the pandemic. As voting drew to a close, the four-day lockdown began. However, as results came out, election winners breached the lockdown and gathered in the streets en masse to celebrate with songs, dance, and gunfire. This sparked public outrage, leading the prime minister to order the newly elected minister of the interior to resign, and security personnel to quickly disband the mass gatherings.

Twitter user Salma Nims:

Question: now that we’re receiving videos of the [post-election] celebrations from everywhere, would you please let us walk around the neighbourhood with our children?!

Another Twitter user mocked PM Al-Khasawneh's apologetic response to criticism:

We apologise to the citizen that abided by the law [and didn’t breach the lockdown]

With COVID-19 being declared in June 2020 by the previous health minister as having “shriveled up and died,” the new government kept weakening lockdowns throughout January and February. Cases were rising but the government continued easing restrictions, opening up sectors such as schools and gyms, and removing the Friday lockdown. In mid to late February, as cases were rapidly rising, the government made an overdue announcement assuring nightly curfews, and the Friday lockdowns were reinstated.

More cabinet failures

The new cabinet was hit by another failure soon after. On February 28, 2021, Minister of Justice Bassam Talhouni and Minister of Interior Samir Mubaideen were made to resign following a scandal: The two ministers had attended a dinner party with more than six people sitting at a table, effectively breaching the health and safety orders put in place to limit the virus’ outbreaks.

Soon after, the King appointed Tawfiq Kreishan and Ahmad Ziadat as acting ministers of the interior and justice, respectively. Mubaideen had been appointed only in late November, after Tawfiq Halalmeh was made to step down for failing to properly enforce a post-election lockdown.

On March 7, another government shake-up took place to accelerate IMF-guided reforms. Prime Minister Khasawneh reshuffled his cabinet and appointed new ministers, among them a new interior minister, Mazen Faraya. Before being appointed as Minister of Interior, Faraya was the Vice-President of the National Center For Security and Crisis Management which is among the government units managing the pandemic. It remains uncertain whether Faraya still holds the position of vice-president.

In mocking the rapid turnover and recycling of governments and cabinet members, Jordanian Twitter users retweeted this comment, which dates back to 2012, but which they see as valid today:

The newly-formed cabinet of ministers quickly announced stricter curfews to contain the rapid spread of the virus and the worrying increase of hospital staff and ICU bed occupancy, effective from March 13.

Once again, the government surprised us with its last-minute decisions. This will result in an increase of contact between people and the stampedes that we will witness in the next two days will mean more COVID cases. And next week further restrictions will be imposed on the citizen to contain this mass spread. We pay the price of this floundering all too frequently.

Oxygen outage scandal

Early Saturday, March 13, news broke out that people had lost their lives as a result of a two-hour-long oxygen outage in the wards of the public hospital in the city of Al-Salt, West of the capital Amman. Among those who died were COVID-19 patients. 

Nationwide uproar ensued, triggering a maddening chain of events. First, the King fired the health minister, Nathir Obeidat, and appointed Faraya, the minister of the interior and vice president of the National Center For Security and Crisis Management, as acting Minister of Health. An investigation is currently undergoing to determine the causes behind the failure to adequately supply oxygen to the hospital on time.

A Jordanian Twitter user posted sarcastically on PM Faraya's reaction to the government's chaotic handling of the pandemic and deaths:

Faraya: We’re appointing an administrator in all hospitals whose job is to solve problems

Following a year of lockdowns and curfews with little to no socioeconomic relief offered to citizens, the country is not in a good position for longer-term recovery from the pandemic. With stricter measures on the horizon, public fury on the rise and Ramadan approaching, there’s great uncertainty as to what’s going to happen.

According to journalist Basil Alrafaih:

The authority will resort to more brutality, as an expression of the aggravation of its crisis, its inefficiency, and its inability to find solutions. It will not face the dilemma, it will be careful to deny it and confront its manifestations.

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