Coronavirus II

COVID-19, 3D Medical animation (Wikimedia commons)

It’s getting a bit tricky to keep this updated with everything else going on – spending a fair amount of time at home with the COVID-19 closures and restrictions, but also spending more time on things like grocery shopping than I normally would. Hence no time to review social-media content, though you’re welcome to pass along posts and I will include. If you find these posts interesting in general, do drop me a line (contact info available here) as it can be a fairly lonely endeavor.

Media and Communications

Fair amount of discussion about how the Saudi government is getting its message out, whether prominent “influencers” are helping with public information campaigns or only making things worse.

Khalid al-Suliman has noted the tendency of social media to permit the spread of misinformation…

While the traditional media has its own filters to professionally verify the authenticity of the information, social media has given opinion- and content-makers complete freedom to publish whatever information and comments they want… This means their bear a greater responsibility in checking their information, tracking their sources, and checking the credibility [of news]! For example, some tweets circulated news published by a foreign account regarding a video-clip of a quarrel between a group of passengers, described them as drunkards in a plane that took off from Saudi Arabia heading to Lebanon.

Khalid Al-Suliman, Okaz, 3.16.2020

…and called on government agencies to ensure that they were working with media professionals, rather than any old social-media influencers, in getting their message out and documenting efforts to control the spread of COVID-19…

The truth is that not all of the famous media personalities would be successful in the field they want to work in. Those who specialized in covering field campaigns for security raids and the campaigns of trade and municipal inspectors such as Saud Al-Shaibani, Mansour Al-Rugaiba and Abdullah Al-Khareef have acquired considerable experience over time, and it is difficult for simply imitating them to achieve the same success!

In my opinion, it is the duty of the competent authorities to use professional photographers to capture the picture out in the field for messaging…

Khalid al-Suliman, Okaz, 3.27.2020

Calls for the Saudi government to practice “better communications” in presenting the image of the Kingdom abroad are now directed at how the government communicates its policies at home.

Offering notifications on crises in general is not as easy as some people believe, whether for those working in the media or spokespersons. In this pandemic that has pervaded the world, great care must be taken to address people according to the correct scientific, psychological and media standards, as we do not want these engagements to lead to intimidation, underestimation [of dangers], confusion or misinformation to create problems in addition to the main problem.

Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.25.2020

Civil Obedience

Another tack for newspaper commentary was criticism of Saudi citizens violating the terms of curfews or travel restrictions. We can generally assume that columnists would not be condemning it if it weren’t happening

IE, earlier on in the crisis:

I went out to buy some food commodities after an optional house isolation. I expected to find the streets empty of cars, and the markets empty of people, but life seemed almost normal!

I don’t know – do people realize the significance of the calls to stay at home and the reasons for suspending studies and attending work offices, or do they not distinguish between crises and vacations ?!

Khalid al-Suliman, Okaz, 3.19.2020

And more recently:

Freedom has limits, especially in crises, where states have enacted emergency laws. Therefore what is permissible in the times of prosperity cannot be overlooked in case of distress.

Including, adolescent behavior has occurred during the past days, such as drinking Dettol [and presumably filming it]. There are also some reckless practices, especially after the royal order for curfews, by rebelling against [the curfew], and causing fear among people about the epidemic or the availability of food, or assaulting officers of the state.

Issa Al-Ghait, Al Watan, 3.25.2020

Likewise, harsh words reserved for those taking advantage of the crisis to raise their prices on essential goods.

Manipulation of the consumer market during crises and disasters amounts to grand treason. Some countries consider it as such and punish its perpetrators according to this classification. For this we hope to hear about the most severe penalties against those whose manipulation is proven, including denouncing them so that society exercises its punishment against them by continuing to boycott them after the end of the crisis.

Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.17.2020

Issa al-Ghait also railed against ignorant “influencers” of both secular and religious persuasions, price-gougers, and quack doctors peddling bad advice as “crisis merchants” that ordinary people should beware of (Al-Watan, 3/18/2020).

Government Response

Social media and op-ed pages have been filled with praise for the government’s response – I’ll just list some takes here:

  • It can be said that Saudi Arabia is very close to the Chinese model in taking stronger and stronger measures from the beginning… If the Saudi government hesitated to take [strong measures] at the time, it would face a situation very different from the current situation, which is much less bad than that found in counterparts from countries in the region and the world. (Salman al-Dosari, Aawsat, 3.16.2020)
  • [On the newly imposed curfew] The Kingdom’s government does not hesitate to take any precautionary measures that preserve the health of citizens and residents… Regardless of the cost of material sacrifices or losses, the Kingdom is well aware that the health of people is a “red line” that [the government] is prohibited from touching or approaching… (Al-Riyadh editorial board, Al-Riyadh, 3.24.2020) 
  • We also salute the initiatives announced by some school leaders, teachers, supervisors, and student guides in broadcasting educational proposals and opportunities for participation that benefit the student, family, and teacher so as to occupy free time and benefit from the time of curfew and stay at home. (Saud al-Musaibih, Al-Riyadh, 3.26.2020)
  • The Kingdom… has attempted by all means to maintain balance and avoid collapses in the global oil market so that the wheels of development in the societies of the world are not affected… It has financially supported the World Health Organization to raise its capacity to confront the epidemic… [and provided] great support to some countries affected by the epidemic due to their low medical capabilities and their shaky economies… (Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.27.2020)

And a few modest proposals/questions:

  • A [Shura council] proposal to establish a national emergency fund… is an important proposal at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear how important it is to provide support in the face of the crisis of the Corona epidemic that is sweeping the world and casting heavy shadows on all countries, including the Kingdom… (Khalid al-Suliman, Okaz, 3.24.2020)
  • We look to the competent authorities… to remove injustices that will fall on tenants, who may unfortunately be required to pay directly through the enforcement courts without taking into account these [exceptional] circumstances. (Issa al-Ghaith, Al Watan, 3.25.2020)
  • Khalid Al-Suliman has a full list of things he is “for” and “against” with the Coronavirus, such as the fact that he is “For calls for the (Saudi Arabian) Monetary Agency to compel banks to postpone the collection of loan installments and credit cards for a period of 3 months, or at least freeze the fees and interest on late payments!” (Okaz, 3.30.2020) [Update – has also called for the government to step in to limit price-gouging (Okaz, 4.5.2020)]

International Implications

One strand of discourse following the COVID-19 outbreak has been to state, politely or otherwise, that the response of industrialized democracies has been underwhelming, to say the least.

The superiority complex is fatal when countries and societies depend on it and become captive to it without paying attention to what is happening in the rest of the world around them. They continue to sip the euphoria of the distant past without considering the present and those trying to seize the moment, a terminal disease that causes disruption, weakness and atrophy. This is what some of the societies of the “old continent” suffer from…

Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.20.2020

What is certain is that the countries of Europe, after the Corona pandemic, are completely different from before. As for the European Union, it has practically fallen apart amid this crisis and turned out to be really just a fairy tale on paper.

Hani al-Dhaheri, Okaz, 3.25.2020

There still appears to be a bit of a cordon sanitaire around President Trump’s (mis)handling of the pandemic within the United States, however. Again, there is considerable variation in how this is expressed:

Trump leads his administration staff and holds a daily press conference, adding to it experts, doctors, businessmen and manufacturers. He has managed the whole country and embraced it, without paying attention to all the obstacles that were placed in his way. He went to Congress and convinced the Democrats and Republicans of the importance of supporting efforts to combat the deadly disease…

In a day and a night, Donald Trump turned from the disputed and divided president to the father of the American nation – to the Abraham Lincoln of the United States of America of this age.

Mohammed al-Sa’id, Okaz, 3.23.2020

cf.

The US presidency dealt with the epidemic at first, lightly, and then found it represents a real danger to it, and moved to remedy the situation. For the United States, the situation is complex and difficult in terms of decision-making, due to the limited power of the federal state. Nevertheless, on one of the few occasions, the two competing political parties, the Democratic and Republican, agreed to put their differences aside and work together under the dome of Congress, and issued a set of decisions to save the country’s health and economic situation. No longer… narrow competition.

Abdelrahman al-Rashed, Aawsat, 3.29.2020

Any, finally, raising the question of what all these developments say about the promotion of human rights if Western countries cannot ensure the safety and well-being of their citizens.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia struck the most amazing examples of its way of dealing with its citizens and residents on its soil during its response to the Corona crisis that is occupying the whole world these days. [This is] the reality of the civilized method with which it chose to deal with developments according how the situation progressed, and the harmony of that method with human rights in its broadest and most complete sense – far away from the false slogans raised by some.

Hadi al-Yami, Al-Watan, 3.25.2020

The world that remains after this pandemic will redefine the principles of human rights. Some countries were accused from the Western perspective of deniying these rights, but it turned out to be the opposite. Most of our Arab countries have been proactive in their health precautions and in providing all the requirements to confront this disease, while the countries that tried to hold us to account fell behind and continue to suffer. Our country has paid attention to people without regard to any material considerations for the safety of all who inhabit this land.

Idriss al-Driss, Okaz, 3.30.2020

There are political systems that absorbed the danger early, reduced the spread of the disease and protected themselves from catastrophe and did not leave a reason for blame by its citizens, while other political systems waited for the catastrophe and then moved late and brought anger to it from its people. The great irony is that the former is accused of violating human rights, while the second is proud of defending human rights, so that the world discovers that the same principles that protect public freedoms are the same ones that stand unable to protect lives.

Salman al-Dosary, Aawsat, 3.31.2020

Update – some op-eds on the fringe of outlets like Okaz have been relaying some Chinese messaging regarding the virus not being Chinese in origin…

The question here is – what if it is absolutely proven that COVID 19 is not Chinese, and that China is simply the country that discovered it and then helped the world to confront it? Will anyone doubt that they will be the leader of the new world?

Hani al-Dhaheri, Okaz, 4.5.2020

Against religious interpretations

One other strand of discussion – both on and off social media – has been pushing back against any individuals (typically religious conservatives) who might use the COVID-19 crisis to argue that Saudi Arabia is being affected by the virus as a result of greater social liberties in the past few years.

Astonished at those willing to [claim knowledge of] God, certain that Corona reflects punishment or [divine] anger… the [Quran’s] verses forbade this and called for seeking forgiveness and good thinking in God Almighty…

On the news of the arrest of four [people inciting others with misinformation]*, they published material for [spreading incendiary rumors]* and who swear by God [that he would do x or y].** Some preachers love to spread [views] on every subject, as if he were God’s guardian of His creations, and as if the state is not governed by a ruler and does not have agencies, religious scholars, and experts. Yes, advice and the call to repentance, representation and supplication are for Muslims in times of affliction, but this inciting…

and exploiting the suffering to strike opponents and take revenge in an intellectual battle for revenge is something for hypocrites. God’s guidance is clear and there is nothing wrong with returning the matter to His family [i.e. letting humans handle the issue]… [thread continues]

*The word comes from إرجاف which I haven’t figured out how to translate correctly – “spreading rumors with an aim to cause commotion and panic among people,” typically with a religious bent.

** from التألى على الله or “swearing that one knows why God does something” [definition]

There is a completely different segment [of society], that exercised hyperbole in their usual way to dance atop human tragedies and sad disasters. Their dancing began internationally, first for non-Muslims in the [first] afflicted country, China, then the “infidel” West, then moved locally by aiming their verbal and written weapons towards the average citizens, moderate preachers, and the educated members of society, and then went beyond to focus on the state’s activities in employing women, leisure, tourism, heritage and other activities.

Fahad al-Ahmari, Al-Watan, 4.6.2020

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