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Coronavirus: A matter of time

Feb 26,2020 - Last updated at Feb 26,2020

Although the efforts of Jordanian authorities to prevent the coronavirus from entering Jordan have been valiant and commendable, it is important to recognise that prevention is somewhat of an uphill battle in this case, if not altogether impossible. This is no cause to panic: Even the most well-prepared and isolated countries will have outbreaks. The sooner we can collectively come to terms with this, the better. Only then can efforts focus entirely on the more important part of dealing with such public health incidents: Managing the outbreak once it has already taken place.

Limiting the spread of the virus requires significant work on two fronts: First, utilising the already impressive assets and network available to the government for early detection so that care and quarantine measures can be provided to affected patients and communities. This not only necessitates that horizontal communication amongst the relevant governmental agencies is strengthened and streamlined, but also that vertical communication within the different agencies is enhanced, such as that between the Ministry of Health and the public hospitals under its jurisdiction.

Second, authorities should work diligently with the Jordanian public to both raise awareness about the virus and address social, cultural and behavioural norms that could impact its spread amongst the population. This would include issues that are very much ingrained in the practices and identities of all Jordanians, such as paying condolences, joining Friday prayers and even limiting physical greetings. This is no easy feat: A general resistance to change, adherence to habit, even the vulnerability to disinformation and rumours on social media platforms are spreading faster than the virus itself. A recent post seen online provided a traditional homeopathic recipe as a surefire way to prevent infection. Another made a hateful suggestion that the outbreak of the virus was heavenly retribution against the Chinese for their mistreatment of Uighur Muslims. Yet another provided estimates about the number of “actual” victims of the coronavirus in the Kingdom that are both baseless and sensationalist. 

Addressing public health risks such as this outbreak requires a collective and collaborative effort between the government, civil society and the general public as well as responsible and courageous actions on the part of individuals and organisations. A heartfelt example is the reported insistence of the brave Royal Jordanian pilot evacuating Jordanians from Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, on self-quarantine even though she had taken all precautions against infection and was not required to do so. 

Jordanians should be encouraged that the government in general, and the Ministry of Health in particular, has drastically improved its preparedness to deal with public health risks over the past several years and has already effectively dealt with a recent serious outbreak of H1N1 in December of last year. In this current crisis, the ministry has already been working diligently with its partners such as the National Centre for Security and Crises Management, Ministry of Agriculture, Public Security Directorate and other stakeholders to increase readiness and coordination. This positions Jordan well to weather the outbreak when, and not if, it happens.

A key to addressing public health incidents like the world is now grappling with is for governments everywhere to maintain honest and open communication channels with their respective general public. In this sense, while scientific and technical measures relating to managing pandemics are critical, it is equally important to consider the role that the behavioural sciences could play in improving trust and communication, and addressing scepticism and doubt that has come to characterise relations between governments and their citizens everywhere.

 

Nasser Bin Nasser is the Managing Director of the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (www.mesis.jo), a Jordanian non-profit working to address chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear risks across the Arab world. @nasserbinnasser

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