As Saudi Arabia collects the most infections among its Arab counterparts, standing currently at 18,811 cases compared to the worldwide 3 million, the country is semi-ready to go back to business as usual as it's being hit the hardest in the region by the novel coronavirus. With the holy month of Ramadan entering its fourth day, cities' curfews and malls' reopening are planned to be relaxed for both people to be able to move more easily and businesses to partially operate normally again.
Ramadan is a month known for its generosity, reunions, and lavish feasts. How is Saudi Arabia, the land of the holiest Islamic sites (Mecca and Medina), working towards lessening the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining, as much as possible, the spirit of the holy month?
Reopening stores and malls
Many traditions specific to Ramadan revolve around gatherings and late-night hangouts, two activities that attract high chances of contracting COVID-19 as the virus is transmitted at a close range from one human to another.
Reopening malls and stores is one of the steps taken by the GCC country to guarantee people have the option to shop on location instead of online, though it doesn't come without strict regulations. For example, such locations must be disinfected every 24 hours, no banknote payments or children under 15 years of age are allowed, and goods purchased cannot be returned or exchanged.
Other measures to preserve the safety of customers and employees are:
- Only two people are allowed in elevators (on the condition no electric escalators or stairs are present on site.)
- Customers as well as employees must wear face masks at all times.
- Masks and gloves must be available at entrances.
- Medical examination and sterilization units must be present at all entrances.
- Benches and rest areas must be removed.
- Fitting rooms and prayer areas must be closed.
- Individuals with a temperature higher than 38 degrees Celsius are not allowed entry.
- Suspected cases will be taken to isolation rooms.
Imposing social distancing during prayer times in Mecca
The holy site of Mecca has been closed off for the first time since 40 years ago due to the pandemic infiltrating Saudi Arabia. The last time a closure was recorded was during what is called "The Siege of Mecca" in 1979 when the Grand Mosque of Mecca was attacked, impacting and changing the entire course of Saudi history.
On the first night of Ramadan, only a small group of clerics, security staff, and cleaners were allowed inside the Prophet's Mosque in Medina for prayers. Taraweeh prayers at the Grand Mosque of Mecca witnessed social distancing as a number of worshipers prayed at a distance from their neighbors. Worshipers are still denied entry to Mecca as it remains under a 24-hour curfew.
Readjusting curfews across the country
The kingdom has relaxed its curfew - except for Mecca, which remains under 24-hour lockdown - to help citizens and expats move around their cities between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., from April 26 until May 13.
"Consumption will improve, grocery retailers will continue maintaining the lead (with revenue). Other companies will also be relieved from (having) low or zero revenues such as mall retailers and retailers that were forced to switch to e-commerce," Mazen Alsudairi, the head of research at Al Rajhi Capital, told Arab News.
Collaborating with China to intensify testing
Saudi Arabia and China have signed a 995-million riyals ($264.6 million) deal on Sunday that will supply the kingdom with 9 million COVID-19 tests and needed equipments to combat the virus.
In addition, 500 Chinese specialists and technicians will be recruited for eight months to conduct the tests and train Saudi medical teams across six laboratories, "including a mobile site with the capacity to conduct 10,000 tests per day."
The kingdom has also purchased a total of 14.5 million tests from the U.S., Switzerland, and South Korea — approximately serving to test 40 percent of the country's population.