In the early stages of the pandemic, Morocco swiftly issued a series of major restrictions to slow down the virus’ rampancy. As of April 16, the country has officially recorded around 2250 cases and 128 deaths. Nevertheless, global observations indicate how numbers might soar rapidly. Awareness of the national healthcare’s structural deficiencies hastened the adoption of early-on draconian measures in Morocco. Remarkably, and unsurprisingly to a certain extent, King Mohammed VI’s directives served as a roadmap from the very beginning, while other political actors mostly jumped on the bandwagon.

In responding to COVID-19, the state has launched an image repair campaign that purports to bring more trust to the Palace. The later distinguished itself as the most proactive stakeholder in health security governance. It is not unusual that in times of crisis, the real chain of command more markedly unveils itself, not least to prove itself to the citizenry in comparison to other actors, especially political parties. With strong media visibility, the king urged the creation of a solidarity fund starting from 10 billion dirhams (about $1 billion USD), which has since tripled. It aims to improve medical infrastructure against the pandemic, absorb the economic shock on key sectors, such as tourism, which attributes to around 10 percent of the GDP, and support fragile social groups. Since the fund’s establishment, large corporations, like the king-owned Al Mada Group—the mightiest economic conglomerate in the country— as well as NGOs and even government ministers have contributed. Such contributions were primarily a product of the promise of tax relief.

Mohammed VI, as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, ordered the military to turn over medical facilities and staff as part of the government’s response to the pandemic. In addition, the Moroccan army has recently created and equipped medical facilities in various regions of the country to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet, resorting to the army is infrequent. With the ubiquity of security institutions and the passing of a medical emergency law, citizens and observers did not react nervously to the mostly limited visibility of the army.

Under the medical emergency law, the royal army and the Ministry of Interior—known for working under the King’s auspices—proved to be empowered. At the same time, other political actors refrained from taking a leading role. They show total support for royal steps, somehow opportunistically, to shun accountability should the king’s policies fail. Interestingly, according to a survey conducted by the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analyses  (MIPA), 74 percent of the respondents distrust the hospitals’ capacity to cope with this new security challenge but are satisfied with the measures implemented. However, 58 percent of the sample is not confident in the government’s capacity to manage the pandemic. Better equipped and resourceful countries like the U.S. or European states are paying hard tolls. Despite years of warnings about pandemics, countries worldwide are discovering shocking shortages of hospital beds, nursing, and essential protective supplies resulting from decade-long profit-driven cutbacks in public healthcare.

With this in mind, the effect of a viral outbreak on Morocco will be potentially catastrophic. Its healthcare system has long been under stress. In 2019, more than 300 public sector physicians resigned en masse after nationwide strikes. Hundreds of public sector doctors and students, clad in black vests, took to the streets nationwide, denouncing their sordid and deteriorating working conditions compared to the better-funded private sector. They protested low wages, congestion at hospitals and health-care centers, substandard infrastructures, and the uneven distribution of personnel and facilities across the country.

According to the Global Health Observatory Data Repository, the latest statistics show that  Morocco has around seven doctors for 10,000 inhabitants (2017), one of the lowest ratios in the Maghreb (in neighboring Algeria the average is slightly more than 18, in Tunisia it is 12.7). In just two of the country’s 12 regions, Rabat and Casablanca, the administrative and economic hubs, respectively, account for more than a third of all doctors. Sometimes, a patient may be given a one-year appointment, while a pregnant woman may deliver in the street in remote or overcrowded areas. Consequently, mass protests over the last years regularly criticize poor governance and planning, insufficient funding, as well as widespread corruption in health centers. Famously, the movement in the Rif Northern region, or Rif Hirak, demanded basic health-care improvement and a specialized local hospital for cancer as a top priority for a region which still suffers from the consequences of harmful gas used to suppress past rebellions during the Spanish occupation.

In Morocco, the virus exposes not only healthcare structural irregularities, since 70 percent of hospitals are decadent. More markedly, it emphasizes the sharp inequalities among citizens and regions. Restrictive measures affect the fragile fringes of the population the most. In the emergency, more vulnerability and starvation are awaiting temporary workers, street vendors, and all those in the informal economy that accounts for more than 20 percent of the GDP.  Civil society can help greatly if the state paves the legal way for solidarity action.

The lockdown’s unsustainability further aggravates social precarity. For dwellers of slum-like economic apartments or daily workers, for instance, home confinement, social distancing and proper hygiene are luxuries they cannot afford. That is why, so far, the most affected neighborhood nationwide is the overcrowded Tacharouk district in Casablanca. If the health emergency extends, a significant amount of citizen-oriented measures will be required. The situation in prisons, for example, urged human rights activists to circulate a petition inviting the king to widen the positive impact of his steps by granting amnesty to prisoners of opinion, especially Rif Hirak activists.

Democratically, dealing with this unprecedented health security threat could be either a shot for ‘redemption’ or a missed opportunity to forge new social contracts. At the regional scale, fear of the COVID-19 outbreak has temporarily suspended anti-government protests simmering in countries like Algeria, Iraq, or Lebanon over the last year. Though protests have been less intense recently, Morocco makes no exception.

In Morocco, the royal pro-action has ensured promptness, yet eclipsed other political actors. It has also obliged discourses of accountability, transparency, and democratization to wane. Paternalistic tones and calls to responsibility have dominated official statements by authorities. Yet, there is a lack of a broader debate on the political actors entitled to provide security, on what ‘security’ means in this time, and for whom. Likewise, further reflection on the trade-off between personal freedoms, collective choice, and leaders’ decisions has been largely absent. In a general environment of securitization, some even welcomed police violence against breakers of quarantine rules. Lastly, few voices questioned the implications that corruption at the central and local level had on the inconsistencies of the health system. 

Although the pandemic is a global phenomenon, its impact on every single country greatly depends on local decision-making. The coming weeks are crucial to see how Morocco’s security governance tackles the multi-layered challenges of COVID-19. However, the accumulated consensus to confront the virus’ threat nationally carries the potential to make new strides toward the democratic transition.

Dr. Giulia Cimini is a Gerda Henkel Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences – University of Bologna, Italy. Dr. Abderrahim Chalfaouat is a Morocco-based researcher in media culture, digital transformation and MENA affairs. Follow him on Twitter @chalfaouat.