Can Morocco Effectively Handle the COVID-19 Crisis?

The Moroccan government is capitalizing on a burst of unity, social solidarity and public support in the face of a crisis. However, if it fails to effectively mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, this spirit of solidarity and cooperation will not last long.

Expert comment Published 6 April 2020 Updated 27 August 2021 3 minute READ

Dr Mohammed Masbah

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Anna Jacobs

Senior Research Assistant, Brookings Doha Center

A general view of empty stores during curfew as a precaution against the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Rabat, Morocco on 1 April 2020. Photo by Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A general view of empty stores during curfew as a precaution against the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Rabat, Morocco on 1 April 2020. Photo by Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

In Morocco, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased public trust in government, but people still have doubts about the effectiveness of the healthcare system. According to a recent study conducted by the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (MIPA), the majority of Moroccans surveyed are generally satisfied with the measures taken by the government to battle the coronavirus. However, the same survey also shows that Moroccans do not have confidence in the healthcare sector’s ability to respond to this pandemic.

The positive perceptions of the government’s response can be explained by the swift and strict measures enacted. King Mohammed VI held a high-level meeting with the prime minister, the minister of health, and top security officials on 17 March and a few days later, on 20 March, the Moroccan government declared a state of health emergency and began to implement aggressive measures to contain the virus.

This has included closing airports, schools, mosques, cafés and shops – with the exception of food markets – preventing large gatherings, as well as strict guidelines to ensure social distancing. As of 2 April, nearly 5000 people have been arrested for violating the state of health emergency.

In order to address urgent medical needs and to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, the King ordered the creation of an emergency fund, raising more than 32.7 billion Moroccan Dirhams ($3.2 billion). The Ministry of Finance will begin to make cash transfers to vulnerable citizens, and especially those who have lost their jobs. However, the stipulations surrounding these cash transfers will be decided in the coming weeks.

Updates about the virus are communicated daily by the Ministry of Health, despite growing criticism of its communication strategy. As of 4 April, Moroccan authorities have confirmed 883 cases and 58 deaths.

Call for national unity

In times like these, there is a call for unity in the face of a national and global crisis, and opposition groups such as Adl wal Ihssan and Rif activists have expressed their support for government measures and have encouraged people to follow the new guidelines and restrictions. However, despite calls to release political prisoners, Moroccan authorities have not indicated that they will do so. This is a missed opportunity vis-à-vis the opposition because it could have served as a way to further strengthen national unity during the crisis.

These are all promising signs and point to what is likely to be a short-term burst in unity and institutional trust. However, the institutional weaknesses in governance and the healthcare system have not disappeared, which is why this increase in institutional trust should be taken with a grain of salt.

Public trust issues

This pandemic poses tremendous challenges for governments across the globe, and this holds especially true for states in the Middle East and North Africa region, where citizens do not approve of government performance and do not trust key state institutions. The 2019 Arab Barometer survey found that Moroccans do not trust most of the country’s political institutions (notably the parliament and the Council of Ministers) and the level of satisfaction with the government’s performance remains extremely low.

On the public health front, as shown in two of MIPA’s recent surveys, trust in the healthcare system is also very low. Around three-quarters of those surveyed do not trust Moroccan hospitals, highlighting the acute structural problems in the healthcare system. In fact, there is a stark divide between private and public healthcare, as well as a huge gap in access to healthcare facilities between urban and rural areas. Most of the country’s hospitals and doctors are located in major urban areas and the only three laboratories with capabilities for COVID-19 testing are located in Rabat and Casablanca, but even there, testing capacity is very limited.

Similar to other countries, there could be a major shortage of doctors and medical equipment throughout Morocco. So far, the Ministry of Finance has said that 2 billion dirhams of the emergency fund will go towards purchasing medical equipment such as beds, ventilators, tests, prevention kits and radiology equipment, but the timeline remains unclear.

A vulnerable economy

There is significant concern about the medium- and long-term economic impact of the virus. Two of the country’s key economic sectors have already been hit hard: agriculture and tourism. The agricultural sector was already struggling due to the impact of drought, while the coronavirus pandemic is likely to impact Morocco’s tourism industry not just this year, but well into 2021. In terms of government response, the emergency fund is a strong start, but questions surrounding the management of these funds have already been raised.

The most vulnerable parts of the population have been affected by the economic crisis because of the country’s bulging informal sector – in which most people work - and a very weak private sector. In fact, two-thirds of the workforce are not covered by a pension plan, almost half of the working population does not currently benefit from medical coverage and there is no social care system for vulnerable parts of the population. As of 1 April, more than 700,000 workers have lost their jobs.

Moving forward?

Even if public perceptions of the government’s response are positive at the moment, this is most likely a short-term surge that should not be taken for granted. Despite the efforts made by the government, Morocco’s health system is not equipped to handle this crisis. Even with the new measures that have been implemented, if the spread of the virus gets out of control, more funds, more doctors, and more equipment will be needed. Given the structural weaknesses of the healthcare system, this will be an uphill battle.

Moreover, even if the government manages to mitigate the public health impact, the economic consequences will be dire—especially in the tourism industry—and will severely hurt those workers in the informal sector who are living without a safety net. In Morocco, this category represents most of the working population.

This crisis highlights that the Moroccan government must urgently tackle its large portfolio of unfinished reforms, notably in healthcare, the economy, and labour rights. So far, the government is capitalizing on the spirit of unity, social solidarity and public support. The future trajectory of the pandemic and the effectiveness of governance will determine if this spirit of solidarity will last. If the government fails to effectively mitigate the public health and economic impacts of this pandemic, this solidarity and cooperation will not last long.