Ethar Fahad, a young legal specialist in Saudi Arabia, was dumbfounded when COVID-19 infected her family.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” said the 26-year-old, whose mother and sister caught it before she did and all fell seriously ill with the fever and lethargy, the standard symptoms of COVID. “We were joking around about it ... but then we started to fall down, one after the other.”
Saudi Arabia shut quickly and broadly in April in a nationwide lockdown. Only essential businesses were open, and citizens were prohibited from going beyond their neighborhoods.
“We felt very uncomfortable at first. We were very upset,” Fahad said about the isolation and lockdown. “We couldn’t really handle it anymore after three or four months. It was too much.”
In late June, a 24-hour curfew was lifted, and residents were allowed out of their homes only between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The number of confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia since the virus first spread to the country is at 358,102, with 5,930 deaths to date, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.
But cases receded, and the country has reopened to citizens slowly in phases since June.
Young Saudis have found their lives and careers much changed. Some have resorted to lower-paying and lesser jobs, such as driving for Uber or the courier service Mrsool, or delivering groceries.
“Everyone tried to have a side job,” Fahad said. “Everyone started looking into new jobs. People started closing up their businesses, especially start-ups.”
“Whatever they can, just to make ends meet,” she said.
AlJohara Al Homaidan, 23, said the office where she worked as a paralegal has been hurt by the pandemic.
“As a local private law office, we had direct relations with the Ministry of Justice and other governmental institutions to handle our work,” she said. But after months of lockdown, ministries shut down, too. “We lost a lot of clients.”
Economic support from the government to citizens was reduced, while the Value Added Tax (VAT) was increased to 15% from 5% in July. VAT is charged on goods purchased within a country.
“That was a shock to everyone. But at the same time, it was totally understandable to balance out the budget,” Al Homaidan said about the tax increase. “I think they did that to help the government economically.”
Like elsewhere, young Saudis have put their lives on hold as the pandemic continues.
“No one [is] buying houses. No one is buying cars. The economy was paralyzed for a while,” said Farhad, the legal specialist said. “Now it’s getting back slowly, but I think it has affected lots of families, especially the middle class.”
According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, the unemployment rate in the country rose to a high of 15.4% in the second quarter of 2020, while the economy suffered a 7% decline.
“I think not only the government got affected but also local business owners,” Al Homaidan said. “Especially restaurant owners or bakeries or coffee shops. They got affected pretty badly and a lot of small businesses had to shut down and some had to sell their businesses across Saudi Arabia, which is really devastating. They just simply couldn't afford paying their employees.”
Nora Alfard, 26, a creative copywriter and coffee shop owner, lost work as a copywriter and saw business at her coffee shop drop off.
“I felt this calm fear of ‘holy s--- what am I going to do?’ to ‘We’re going through a pandemic, so no one really knows what to do,’ ” she said as she watched the uncertain global response to the pandemic.
After the hustle and bustle of a booming Saudi economy and prominent social scene before the pandemic, Fahad said she found it difficult to manage her isolation days. She said she now finds herself connecting with the people who truly matter.
“I used to have very busy days before quarantine. Now I feel really calm,” she said. “I took it slowly. I enjoyed every little thing.”
She said the time alone has inspired her art, however.
“Art bloomed! I can only speak from my own perspective, but boredom makes wonders,” Alfard said.
Saudi Arabia is further along than other countries in controlling the virus because of the enforced lockdown and government funding was directed to the medical sector. Tents were erected as testing sites. Treatment was quick and focused.
Also, the government created apps to help Saudis cope with staying at home and the illness.
“So if you’ve had an emergency and you needed an ambulance, you can simply order one using these apps,” Al Homaidan said.
Other apps showed the concentration of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in any given area. Many restrictions have been lifted, allowing residents to freely go out to restaurants and movie theaters, and resume life as usual — but all while wearing a mask.
“We can’t deny that every economy is suffering in their own way,” Alfard said. “In Saudi, I believe we’re adapting to the new normal.”