How Saudi Arabia kept COVID-19 at bay

Time: 23 September 2020

An aerial view shows deserted streets in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on April 21, 2020, as the message “stay home” in Arabic is displayed on a tower during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. (Photo by Bandar al-DANDANI / AFP)
Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for two months, buying precious time to build up its defenses. (AFP)
  • From its peak in June, Saudi Arabia’s daily new cases have dropped below 500

LONDON: At the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, June 17 passed unremarked on, as just another day in Saudi Arabia’s hard-fought battle against the worst public health crisis the country has ever seen.

In future, however, June 17 might be seen as an appropriate date for the people of Saudi Arabia to remember their nation’s epic battle against the microscopic enemy that brought the world to its knees — for that was the day the number of daily new cases in the Kingdom peaked.

At the time, the day’s tally of 4,919 cases seemed daunting. In fact, the tide of battle had turned in favor of the Kingdom. After that, slowly but steadily the number began to drop. From its first case on March 2, Saudi Arabia had broken the back of the pandemic in just 107 days.

COVID-19 emerged in China in early January, spreading rapidly around the world, but Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for two months, buying precious time to build up its defences.

“We were luckier than many other countries because our cases started a little bit later,” said Dr. Hani Jokhdar, deputy minister for public health, speaking in August at the Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit. “This gave us a small opportunity to develop our systems, watching and observing what was happening in the rest of the world.”

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries in the world to set up laboratories to test for the coronavirus, with tests available for anyone with symptoms from March 5 onward. Over the next five months more than five million would be carried out.

‘We witness the fruits of our labor today.’

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Aly

In February, travel to and from infected countries was quickly curtailed, culminating in a ban on all international flights by March 15. Restrictions on internal travel followed shortly after.

And on Feb. 27, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented but necessary step of suspending Umrah visas for foreign pilgrims. The Kingdom would also take the lead in closing mosques.

Saudi Arabia’s defences were finally breached on March 2, thanks to two citizens who had returned home infected from Bahrain, neglecting to mention that their journeys had begun in Iran, a country already in the grip of the disease.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the last of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states to be hit by the virus, was better prepared than many countries for what was coming. A raft of apps — some established, others developed quickly in the face of the new disease — allowed citizens and residents to report symptoms, book virtual appointments and access testing.

Such technology would also play a vital role in the management of Hajj. As the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, from the outset Saudi Arabia was keenly aware of the consequences for itself, the region and the entire planet if it failed to manage the pilgrimage effectively.

This year the decision was taken to limit numbers to a symbolic 1,000, selected from nationals and foreigners already in the country. Careful screening, monitoring and meticulous management ensured that, in this remarkable year, Hajj passed off without a single case of COVID-19.

Throughout, Saudi Arabia’s battle against the virus has been led from the very top. On March 19, King Salman addressed the nation on television. The Kingdom, he said, “continues to take all precautionary measures to confront this pandemic and limit its effects. We depend on the aid of God Almighty, then on deploying our full capabilities, supported by your strong determination to face adversity with the steadfastness of believers at the forefront.”

Key Dates

  • 1

    Saudi Arabia launches a public information campaign on Jan. 28, holds the first meeting of the COVID-19 Follow-Up Committee on Feb. 1, and bans travel to China on Feb. 6.

    Timeline Image Jan. 28-Feb. 6

  • 2

    Timeline Image March 2

  • 3

    Timeline Image March 4

  • 4

    Timeline Image March 8

  • 5

    Timeline Image March 15

  • 6
  • 7

    Timeline Image March 23

  • 8

    Timeline Image March 26

  • 9

    Timeline Image April 6

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    Timeline Image May 13

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    Timeline Image June 17

  • 12

    Timeline Image July 29-31

  • 13

    Timeline Image Aug. 9

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the world is out of the woods yet. But as the global daily tally of cases continues to rise, hitting a record high of over 316,000 on Sept. 11, for a total of 31.2 million cases and 965,372 deaths, so Saudi Arabia’s daily caseload continues to shrink, even as restrictions have been relaxed and life in the country has begun to return to normal.

On Sunday, the number of daily new cases dropped below 500 for the first time in five months. As Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Aly said: “We witness the fruits of our labor today.” The “huge improvement,” he added, was thanks to “everyone’s efforts.”

Let there be no doubt that, with a total of 329,271 cases and 4,458 deaths recorded by Sunday, Saudi Arabia has suffered in 2020.

But one has only to look at how badly many other states have fared — including some of the most powerful and advanced countries in the world — to realize just how much worse this terrible year might have been for the Kingdom, were it not for its preparations and timely and decisive actions.

This article was first published in Arab News

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How Saudi doctors fight COVID-19 abroad

Time: 23 September 2020

A woman wearing a protective facemask walks past a paste-up by French street artist Ardif in Paris, depicting a Marianne and a member of the medical staff as a tribute to thank the caregivers, on May 15, 2020, as France eases the lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19, (the novel coronavirus). (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION – TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION
Many of the more than 6,000 Saudi doctors across 41 countries on medical fellowship programs abroad continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied)
  • Many of the more than 6,000 Saudi doctors in medical fellowship programs abroad are fighting COVID-19 in 41 countries

MAKKAH: Many of the more than 6,000 Saudi doctors across 41 countries on medical fellowship programs abroad continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, doing their diligent duty to help people across the globe.

These doctors have shown dexterity in combating the coronavirus pandemic alongside colleagues from their host countries. A substantial number of those Saudi doctors refuse to leave despite the dangers, remaining in the countries where they are studying to help their fellow colleagues in the battle.

Dr. Abdullah Boqays, a fellow working as a dermatologist in cancer hospitals in Toulouse, France, told Arab News that 2020 has been a frightening year for many medical care workers.

“Doctors with various specialties have fought competently since the start of the pandemic, especially the ones dealing directly with infected patients, not only while working in hospitals, which make them more vulnerable than others in terms of infection, but also while dealing with patients who suffer from a weakened immune system,” he said.

Dr. Boqays told Arab News that the staff in his department of skin tumor and dermatology have had to deal with a number of follow-ups and consultations with visiting skin cancer patients, many of whom are at advanced stages of the disease or have weakened immune systems due to chemotherapy or immunosuppressants.

Tumor-removal surgeries have continued despite the pandemic, Dr. Baqis said. “The work environment, as well as behavioral and ethical practices, obliges us to continue the treatment, regardless of the reasons and methods used. Delaying chemotherapy drugs, administering  immunosuppressants or not performing curative surgeries might have disastrous consequences on the patients. We rely on God first, take the necessary precautionary measures to meet the demands of patients, support them and alleviate their pain,” he said.

“Even though we are far from our precious country, we are at peace because our wise government — under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — supports us and cares for Saudis abroad,” Dr. Boqays said

Abdullah Modhayan, a psychiatric resident at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo, has been in Sweden since 2015. “There are more than 50 Saudi doctors on a medical fellowship program in Sweden, working in various medical specialties in different cities, and most of them were on the frontline in the Swedish health system,” he said.

“Some of my colleagues on a medical fellowship program were infected with COVID-19, and quickly returned to their positions to help their colleagues in the Swedish health sector after they’d recovered. It is noteworthy to mention that the work achieved by Saudi doctors in Sweden was and still is appreciated here.”

The Kingdom vs. COVID-19

How Saudi Arabia acted swiftly and coordinated a global response to fight the coronavirus, preventing a far worse crisis at home and around the world.

Sweden made headlines for its soft strategy in combatting the pandemic: The government did not close down shops, restaurants or cafés, and did not impose a quarantine for its citizens and residents.

“This decision had major consequences at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden,” Dr. Modhayan said. “The mortality rate was one of the highest in Europe, which was difficult on the health sector and its status amid a real challenge. Saudi doctors played an efficient role in the face of this challenge here.”

During the pandemic, Dr. Modhayan has been working in the psychiatric emergency department. He noted the psychological effect on individuals, most notably on those who lost loved ones to the coronavirus. “Providing psychological support and treatment for those who need it is very important, especially in such difficult circumstances,” he said.

Dr. Abdulghani Khogeer, a nephrologist surgeon (specializing in kidney and urinary tract diseases), has been living in France for the past seven years as part of a Saudi-French fellowship program and has seen firsthand the disastrous effect the pandemic had on France.

“Similar to other countries, France fought the coronavirus vigorously in the beginning, which required suspending non-urgent medical activities. This had a major effect on the workflow, as we followed remote procedures at clinics, canceled non-urgent operations, rescheduled surgeries, canceled clinics and followed other procedures. That required our constant presence and readiness to help in departments combating the virus such as the emergency department, performing many necessary surgeries during that time.”

Dr. Khogeer is grateful to the Kingdom’s embassy for its support and constant communication during this critical period. “I pray to God to protect us and help us return to our country safely, in order to serve it with all our learning and knowledge,” he said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Young Saudis ‘have learned a great deal’ amid pandemic: Expert

08/07/20

Saudi youth make up 60 percent of the population. (AN photo by Essam Al Ghalib)

Modern internet infrastructure, accessibility in Kingdom ensured smooth running of online education.

LONDON: Despite its short-term challenges, the learning experience from the coronavirus pandemic may prove to be an advantage for young Saudis in the medium to long term, an expert has argued.

The pandemic, and the changes it has caused to education, employment and general wellbeing, have been major challenges for young people all over the world, including in Saudi Arabia.

But Mark Thompson, head of the Socioeconomic Unit at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies, believes that there could be a silver lining to the disruption it has caused: A more strategically minded young population.
Speaking on Tuesday at an online seminar attended by Arab News, Thompson said Saudi youth, which make up 60 percent of the population, adapted quickly to the massive changes to their education that accompanied virus-control measures.
Saudi Arabia suspended all schools, universities and educational institutions on March 9 to contain the spread of coronavirus, delivering education entirely online.
Thanks to the Kingdom’s 90 percent internet penetration rate and the wide availability of internet-ready devices, Thompson said, the country successfully navigated “the switch to online learning” and managed to ensure “the continuation of learning through digital methods.”
One standout triumph from this period was the smooth delivery of university exams by the Ministry of Education, which conducted over 220,000 tests entirely online.
But more than just changing their method of learning, the disruptions have been a chance for many young people in the Kingdom to reflect on their own futures.
“This has also changed attitudes to specialization, toward programs such as business degrees, which are more suited to virtual classrooms,” Thompson said.
“The pandemic has altered young Saudis’ idea of education. It has compelled many young people to become more self-taught,” he added.
“They’ve learned a great deal from this experience. They can now develop clearer visions for their future careers, as well as the institutions they want to join.
“If the pandemic helps foster critical and strategic thinking in a lot of young Saudis, in the medium to long term we can consider this an indirect benefit.”
The pandemic has caused major disruption to children’s and young adults’ education worldwide.
UNESCO estimates that up to 60 percent of students globally have been impacted by school closures, amounting to over 1 billion affected learners.

This article was first published in Arab News

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