AMMAN, JORDAN - I write this from the confines of my 3rd floor apartment overlooking what is normally one of Amman’s busiest entertainment avenues, Rainbow Street. It’s usually bustling with young Jordanians and families, as well as foreigners hoping to improve their Arabic skills in one of the few places left in the Middle East unscathed by Arab Spring violence.
Throngs usually pack the sidewalks in search of tasty burgers, falafel or fatatri, an Egyptian confection of thin dough encasing something savory or sweet. There are shisha bars where excited sports fans watch the latest match on the big screen. Sometimes a street musician strums his guitar as a refugee offers to design a washable tattoo on your hand.
But the colorful crowds are gone. Instead, the silence is punctuated by the occasional blare of sirens. I can see a convey of vehicles, including an ambulance and military humvee, rolling down the cobblestone street. They are warning people to remain in their houses. Don’t step out unless it is an absolute emergency, otherwise you risk being arrested by the police and imprisoned for one year.
A friend sent along a video of one arrest. A Jordanian was driving his car and was stopped by the military. “Ya bey,” they called out in Arabic, a title of respect. “What are you doing in the street?” they asked. Not satisfied with the explanation, they instructed the man into a waiting police car.
Another friend said two men from her building were feeling cooped up and wanted some fresh air, so they stood outside. A number of large families live in quite tight quarters. They then decided to stretch their legs with a little walk. But that cost them an arrest and a year in jail. So far, hundreds of Jordanians have been arrested for breaking the curfew.
Yes, this country of 10 million residents has imposed one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns in the world to combat the coronavirus. It’s not just the inhabitants of one city or region, or those with COVID symptoms, who are in lockdown. It’s everybody, excluding a select number of government officials, the military and health workers.
Now we have been informed that the around-the-clock curfew which began with shrill air raid sirens will be extended indefinitely in the hopes of minimizing the mixing of people and keeping the number of infections low.
Jordan has begun a limited reopening of small neighborhood grocers allowing people from the ages of 16 to 60 to leave their homes on foot for essential trips, like buying food. Home delivery is supposed to start. But the curfew is still in place from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. Interestingly, there are very few people in the streets even with the slight ease in restrictions.
Although the measures are tough and we wonder about the psychological effect it may have over an extended period, I appreciate what the government is doing to protect not only its own citizens -- a large number of whom are of Palestinian descent -- but also the hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni and Sudanese refugees it hosts, as well as foreigners like me.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has been chairing meetings via teleconference with officials to follow up on the measures taken to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and to discuss best practices with regional and world leaders. He has ensured that people’s basic needs will be covered while battling the disease. Meanwhile, Queen Rania, a social media pro, has been sharing a photo of the Jordan map on her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, saying, "Stay home, so our Jordan would stay safe."
Despite the arrests, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has praised the high level of public compliance with the nationwide curfew. He said the government is working out how to deliver basic commodities and medicine to people in the coming period.
Razzaz has assured us that staple foods and oil reserves are available to meet everyone’s needs. Remote learning has also begun through the Ministry of Education’s e-learning platform, Darsak, and three dedicated channels on Jordan Television.
In the meanwhile, I’ve been wondering how to get rid of rubbish, normally dropped off in designated dumpsters in the street, without risking arrest. A friend sent a funny video to me of a Jordanian pretending to be barreling down the street as if in a soccer match and throwing the garbage bag in the bin like a pro-basketball player. I’m not sure I can pull that one off!