Jordan on Wednesday eased one of the world’s strictest lockdowns over the coronavirus after it prompted chaotic scenes in the country.
Days after a total curfew went into effect, people clamored to receive bread distributions from government trucks, the emergency hotline went offline after it apparently became overloaded with phone calls, and some reported they had nothing at home to eat.
But on Tuesday, the government backtracked, loosening restrictions on movement. After four days of total lockdown, people were allowed to leave their homes on foot for essential trips, such as purchasing food from small convenient stores and obtaining medicine. A curfew is still in place from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m.
“There was a collective exuberant response when the Prime Minister announced last night that the small grocery stores would be opened today and you can walk to them,” Adam Coogle, Amman-based Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, told CNN.
Jordan’s General Security Department said 1,657 people were arrested as of Monday for violating the total curfew put in place on Saturday morning. Offenders face up to a year in prison.
On Wednesday, the government warned that authorities may again take harsh measures in the days to come. “These is an increase in the number of infected people and this is an uncomfortable indication and calls for hardening (measures),” said Minister of State for Media Affairs Amjad Adayleh.
Concerns about total curfew
Air raid sirens blared at 7 a.m. on Saturday to announce the total ban on movement. On Sunday, the government announced the curfew would be extended indefinitely, sowing panic in the country.
“People got concerned. There was unfortunately a lack of clarity and some mixed messaging that caused some anxiety among people here,” said Coogle. “The government had not yet announced how they would deal with basic needs.”
Social media video showed a throng of people surrounding a government food truck, after the authorities tried to monopolize the delivery of food. Pharmacies fielded a barrage of phone calls requesting deliveries.
The severity of the former curfew rules flies in stark contrast with countries like Italy, which have seen restrictions for weeks but still allow citizens to visit shops if they can prove their reason for the trip.
The harshness of the orders are especially striking given Jordan’s relatively low number of cases. Just 153 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the country, the government said in an update on Tuesday.
“Being under lockdown feels like you’re always on edge, because we’re used to going out and seeing people,” Hassan Karim, a clothing store employee, told CNN on Tuesday. “Our morale is a bit low, but we have to acclimate until the situation gets better.”
Jordan acted swiftly to limit the spread of the coronavirus, beginning to lock down the country within days of confirming its first case of Covid-19.
Borders were shut, while airports, universities and places of worship all closed. People arriving on flights were placed straight into quarantine, sometimes in five-star hotels taken over by the government, and entrances to cities were patrolled by the military.
But calls for residents to stay indoors were flouted by some – so the response was ramped up last week when a Defense Law was activated by the Prime Minister, Omar Razzaz, with royal decree. On Monday, the country’s monarch, King Abdullah II, said he called on security forces to “maintain maximum readiness in countering (the coronavirus) threat.”
According to local TV stations, the announcement of the total curfew prompted massive traffic jams on Friday, as thousands made their way to local supermarkets to buy food and other necessities. Videos circulated of hundreds of people pushing and shoving in bakeries where scuffles also broke out.
‘Protect and preserve’
“We apologize for taking such a decision, but the aim of this is to protect you and preserve your safety and your health” Minister Adaileh said Saturday.
A day into the total lockdown, Coogle’s family discovered that a family member needed medicine to treat a health condition, he told CNN. Unable to reach any of the pharmacies, the family repeatedly tried to call 911, but the phone never rang. Jordanian authorities said that the emergency line was receiving thousands of calls a day.
“There were medical risks if (the condition) went untreated indefinitely,” said Coogle. “We got very concerned when we heard the news that the curfew was going to extend indefinitely.” On Tuesday, after pharmacy delivery rules were eased, the family was able to purchase the medicine.
Coogle said that when he checked on his building’s concierge, he found that the Egyptian worker had run out of food to eat during the lockdown. Families that had the means to stockpile after the Friday curfew announcement were some of the few “lucky ones,” said Coogle.
“I applaud the government for taking very strong measures for bring this under control,” he said. “They’re going to stabilize (the spread) because of what they’ve done. There’s no question.
“But at the same time, when they introduced panic around the provision of basic needs, I wish they had been clearer.”
The government’s response has received some popular support. At 8 p.m. every night this week, some Jordanians have taken to their balconies to applaud security forces.
“If you look at what happened to Italy and France, they were too late to enforce measures. Jordan is on the right track,” Hassan Karim, a clothing store employee, told CNN.
“It’s happening everywhere and I have to pay my dues,” businessman Jamal Lattouf told CNN. “This is natural under emergency laws and regulations. What we’re living in is not ordinary, history will write down the date we’re witnessing nowadays.
“I feel it’s my duty – it’s not subject to discussion. This could be fatal for me and for the country.”
Meanwhile, the government has promised to modify its approach.
“There are no perfect solutions during this difficult time, so it is natural that there will be mistakes and violations and we will resolve it,” said Adaileh in a press conference on Tuesday.
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh and Ghazi Balkiz contributed reporting