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COVID-19 in Algeria: Responses and Future Outlook

Younes Bahri, Algeria, NESA Alumnus

While Algeria was gradually regained stability after a year of political, social, and economic turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country at a inopportune time that disrupted this process of stabilization.  The pandemic has been a true test for the new President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and the newly established government.  It has also been a test for all national stakeholders – citizens and communities, civil society, and political parties – all of which were being redefined under the popular movement known as “Hirak”.

The early measures taken by Algeria have brought the situation under control, without resorting to extremes such as declaring a state of emergency. This was probably part of a desire on the part of the state to prove the effectiveness of “civilian” response in all sectors, without having to call on military resources. Still, one was consistently reminded that the army and its resources were ready to be deployed if the situation needed.

These early measures began with the closure of universities, schools, and other training centers on March 12, and extended to the suspension of flights, restrictions on travel and commercial activity, the closure of mosques, and the introduction of confinement with curfews (which was partial in some Wilayas (notably Algiers and Oran), and total in the case of Blida).  These curfews were backed up by strict security measures: police and gendarmerie patrols and a vast awareness-raising campaign to encourage people to fully observe the instructions. Monetary and disciplinary sanctions were applied to those in violation.

In addition, an ad hoc scientific research commission was set up, attached to the Ministry of Health. The commission holds daily press conferences where they offer detailed information on the virus, including daily figures of new cases.  The Ministry of Health affirmed that only the commission is empowered to communicate statistics relative to the pandemic. Any information given outside that framework is considered non-credible and perpetrators could face legal sanctions.

Officials regularly maintain that the situation is “under control”, and the figures provided are consistent with such claims despite the reluctance of many to accept the credibility of the statistics. These figures are very real, but they do not necessarily reflect the actual number of people infected, given the limited number of tests carried out daily in the various regions of the country.

At present, these measures are still in place and there is no indication of any changes in the coming days, although a gradual relaxation has been envisaged.  However, a series of guidelines have been given to ensure the smooth functioning of the business ecosystem, thus ensuring that citizens are able to obtain what they need for their daily lives. Several initiatives have been launched to encourage Algerians to limit their movements and travel, such as a revamped television program, the broadcasting of exclusive content by the Ministry of Culture, the encouragement of home delivery activities, etc.

This health crisis has been marked by several elements of political, social, economic and security dimensions. We shall briefly touch on a few.

Political:

Early on, despite the first cases of Covid-19 announced in Algeria, weekly demonstrations by the popular movement known as “Hirak” continued on two occasions, provoking strong reactions in various platforms. An act described as “suicidal” by some, and “irresponsible” by others, it took several days to decide to suspend the marches, particularly after repeated calls from influential political figures and citizens, before the state formally banned all gatherings.

While public opinion was largely absorbed by the health situation, the country experienced a major shift in the security apparatus, with the dismissal, arrest and replacement of several senior officers, notably those at the head of sensitive directorates in the military institution. Some of these were in line with the reform of the security forces, while others were in direct response to specific issues. These important events strengthen the position of the Algerian Head of State and contribute to the consolidation of the relationship between the presidency and the army staff, with a clear redefinition of roles and a clear separation of prerogatives.

Algeria’s health crisis has strengthened the state’s strategy of transforming the “zero sum game” maintained by certain political entities (notably “Hirak”) and reinforced by a breakdown in trust and dialogue between stakeholders. The new “positive sum game” has seen a redefining alliances and the State build bridges with the population to deal with the pandemic. The state has strengthened its institutions, and legal and security arsenal, while trying to correct mistakes made during the early period of uncertainty, some of which could have had severe consequences.

Administrative management and citizen care:

The Algerian authorities were swift to react to the pandemic. Implementation of alternative systems and solutions to remedy the shortcomings that have arisen as a result of these measures, include, but are not limited to:

  • The acceleration of the integration of ICT in various systems, which had been on standby for years, to ensure the continuity of certain services, mainly electronic payment operations, and the digitization of exchange and learning platforms (online courses, videoconferencing, etc.).
  • Highlighting the precarious and bureaucratic practices of the public administration: several administrations have found themselves forced to adapt quickly by relying more on ICT, which until now had been virtually ignored.
  • Exemplary state management of repatriation operations for Algerians abroad. These operations have been marked by the establishment of air bridges in some cases, and by the mobilization of military aviation in others. However, a great deal of confusion accompanied these operations, marked by the resistance of some citizens to comply with the procedures, and by the desire of many Algerians living abroad to “return” to Algeria.
  • These repatriation operations were followed by the systematic quarantine of travelers in State and private hotels, made available for the occasion in the presence of medical staff sent to the scene to take care of residents. These stays offered very good conditions in terms of care.
  • The rapid organization of assistance and support arrangements for disadvantaged families and the various communities affected by the containment measures (artists, craftsmen, etc.) by the authorities.

Health:

Prior to Covid-19, Algeria had insufficient resources (human and material) available to deal with such a pandemic.  However, the fast and efficient decisions taken by the Ministry of Health and effectiveness of the health sector “chain of command” and the fluidity of information-sharing, helped to stem the tide of the pandemic and reduce its spread and mortality. One example is the daring – and early implementation of – the patient management protocol, which included a chloroquine treatment (even if this has been controversial within the local and international scientific community).  Some still believe that it was necessary to establish “real” containment, since the measures taken were not strictly applied.

Civil Society:

After an initial failure to support society during the popular movement “Hirak” by contributing to its structuring and culminating in a concrete political project, civil society organizations and political parties have once again failed to play their role in supporting citizens and society in a time of crisis. Between their total absence from the field and their arbitrary presence – often in a spirit of social solidarity but without observing the appropriate security measures and instructions – only a few organizations have been able to stand out by carrying out genuine outreach work and by complementing the efforts of the State, particularly in the care and assistance to vulnerable individuals and communities and to the various medical and health workers.

Economy:

The spectacular drop in oil prices has added a new layer to the difficulties facing the Algerian economy, already greatly weakened by the sociopolitical events of the previous months. This is despite the ephemeral success of the OPEC+ group at its meeting on April 12.

Nonetheless, there have been some positive signs:

  • The emergence of individual and collective skills, as well as of production capacities that were for a long time marginalized/suppressed: students, university laboratories, and start-ups have succeeded in contributing to the manufacture of artificial respiration apparatuses, disinfection tunnels, and screening kits. This opens the possibility of thinking about the concrete exploitation of the national potential in sectors that are almost entirely covered by imports now.
  • The remarkable mobilization of several economic operators: between donations, and provision of hotels and resources (private clinics, equipment, etc.) which has cushioned the state’s efforts and prevented the “requisition” phase from being reached.
  • The health crisis has also accelerated certain measures initiated by the Ministry of Trade to regulate certain markets. The results of these measures were positive and, in several cases, immediate. The exceptional situation thus allowed the state to take several shortcuts to pass measures and reforms that would probably take longer under normal circumstances.

Despite major difficulties that economic operators will face in the post-Covid 19 era, several specialists believe that the pandemic will play a regulatory role by “filtering” businesses that were inactive, especially start-ups and micro-enterprises that were struggling to get off the ground. This “filtering” will be beneficial for the government’s new approach to encouraging business creation and the diversification of the national economy.

That being said, the national economy will, according to several informed observers, face great difficulties, and urgent and sometimes extreme measures will have to be taken in order to absorb as much as possible the shockwaves of this dual crisis that the country is enduring, the consequences and aftermath of which will stay with the state and its citizens for a long time.

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