The fight against COVID-19, a Saudi perspective

April 18, 2020
The fight against COVID-19, a Saudi perspective
Faris M.Alshuraim

The invisible enemy, as alleged, invaded the borders of states fiercely with no regard to race, sex, age or status. The infection rate around the world has surpassed the two million mark, and the death rate surged to nearly 150,000 worldwide.

Several countries have witnessed a catastrophic collapse of their healthcare systems, as a result of an unprecedented surge in patients seeking emergency medical attention in a relatively short time, outstripping the carrying capacity of their healthcare systems. Not to mention the tragic implications associated with the sharp scarcity of ventilators, PPE, and healthcare cadres.

As for some countries, their healthcare systems seem somewhat steadfast but nevertheless vulnerable that could be overwhelmed at any moment. Few countries, however, proactively dealt with the crisis and took a strict series of precautionary measures and put in place prompt response plans.

In late January, reports confirmed the spread of COVID-19 beyond the borders of China, the epicenter of the virus. The Saudi authorities immediately took proactive strict precautions in preparation for the potential outbreak.

For instance, domestic and international travel was suspended, schools and universities shifted to online learning and curfews were imposed nationwide.

“Before the Kingdom had even recorded a single case of coronavirus, it banned foreign worshippers from performing pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah, which no doubt halted the advance of the deadly disease,” said Mohammed Alsherebi, a Saudi entrepreneur, philanthropist, and advisor to global leaders.

With regards to treatment and prevention, several research centers across the Kingdom are further advancing with the development process of both the vaccine and potential drugs.

"We are using the university's supercomputer and specially designed software to not only compare and analyze coronaviruses but also to scan billions of environmental samples for traces of SARS-CoV-2.

“This information will enable us to develop a concept and system to identify available drugs that are already approved for human use that can be repurposed to attack a new disease — in this case, COVID-19,” said Dr. Intikhab Alam, senior bioinformatician in the CBRC at KAUST.

Also, Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Youbi, president of King Abdulaziz University, mentioned in a press interview that a team of Saudi researchers at KAU had succeeded in "isolating the virus in preparation for the development of a vaccine" pointing out that they will initiate experiments on animals before subjecting it to human trials.

Moreover, to avert potential shortage in lifesaving ventilators, the Saudi Council of Engineers has formed an alliance of eight governmental agencies in cooperation with Saudi industrial companies to team up in the local manufacture of ventilators. Reports indicate that the initiative aims to manufacture 1,000 ventilators per week in the first stage to cover any potential deficit.

Concerning food security and supply chain, Minister of Commerce and Investment Dr. Majid Al Qasabi has reassured consumers about the abundance of food supplies.

“Saudis must be fully assured of the plenitude of food stocks. This country is great with its capabilities, adequacies, and industries. In Saudi Arabia, many people do not know that the largest stock of food gathering in the Middle East is in the Kingdom...” said Abdulrahman Al-Hussein, the official spokesman of the Ministry of Commerce and Investment.

Beyond the public health crisis and the tragic loss of lives, the global economy too was not immune to the virus. Since the onset of the outbreak, financial markets reacted with turmoil and worrying volatilities amid growing panic among investors.

Further, widespread businesses and industries shut down and ensued a sharp increase in unemployment rates, not to mention the supply chain and market disruption as a result of slow economic activity and transportation restrictions.

“This is a case where in economic terms the cure is almost worse than the disease,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “When you quarantine cities ... you lose economic activity that you’re not going to get back.”

Amid the pandemic disruption and the subsequent freeze of economic and social activities, Saudi Arabia responded with a massive stimulus package, amounting SR120 billion to prop up the economy.

Additionally, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman issued a royal decree to allocate SR9 billion to support Saudi employees in the private sector affected by the pandemic repercussion.

Despite the economic challenges that the Kingdom is going through in response to the pandemic, it seems that it has not stopped the Kingdom from forging ahead to broaden the economic base, in alignment with the national Vision 2030.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased early in April a large stake in the giant cruise operator “Carnival”. PIF disclosed that it owns 43.5 million Carnival shares, equivalent to 8.2% of the company's total shares.

Another “smart move”, as described by some experts, is the purchase of $1 billion worth of shares in four European oil producers, Royal Dutch Shell, Equinor, Total and Eni. The PIF has built a big stake out of the undervalued shares, depressed by the pandemic sell-off and slump in oil prices.

Perhaps it is too early to predict what will come in the aftermath of COVID-19 around the world.

However, it is quite fair to say that the Saudi leadership perspective in dealing with the pandemic, with regards to its medical, economic and social implications, demonstrates its liquidity and dynamism in decision-making, which is reflective of the status quo inside the Kingdom.

— The author is a Saudi Dentist / Doctoral Student in Education at the University of Rochester in New York, USA. He can be reached at: fmalshuraim@iau.edu.sa Twitter: @345faris

April 18, 2020
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