With the world’s attention on testing and case counts, Morocco earned international praise for its quick response to the COVID-19 crisis.
In March, April, and May, the country saw strict lockdown measures and suspended economic activities. The proactive strategy appeared to work, and Morocco’s COVID-19 curve began to flatten in late May and mid-June despite increased testing.
Once lockdown measures began to ease in late June, however, cases and deaths began to rise dramatically. Between June 25 and September 7, Morocco recorded over 60,000 new cases of the virus. The once-plateauing curve is now getting increasingly steep.
Still, Morocco maintains its position as a regional and continental leader in the fight against the pandemic, sending COVID-19 supplies to African countries and medical staff to Beirut. For some, however, this point of pride is starting to deflate.
In August, staff at the Ibn Zohr hospital in Marrakech denounced their unsafe working conditions and threatened to suspend services for COVID-19 patients in a widely-circulated statement.
The Ministry of Health swiftly responded, vowing to establish a new field hospital in Marrakech to alleviate the strain on the city’s medical staff and resources.
The situation at Ibn Zohr garnered national media attention and a visit from the health minister himself, but, like in virtually all countries, it seems this overwhelmed and under-resourced hospital is not a unique case.
Siv Bratland, who lives in Agadir, reached out to Morocco World News with a nightmarish story detailing her fiance’s experience undergoing testing for COVID-19.
“Every day we are informed in the media about the numbers of people infected with COVID-19, how many that tested negative, how many deaths, and so forth,” Siv began. “We normally trust these numbers but what is the reality behind them?”
Jaouhar’s struggle as a traced contact
One Saturday night, Siv’s fiance Jaouhar El Abbar received a phone call that his friend tested positive for COVID-19. Because the two had met a few days earlier, Jaouhar knew he had to undergo a test, too.
Two days later, the same friend said he gave Jaouhar’s name to a doctor at a nearby clinic, and that Jaouhar should wait for their call.
Jaouhar did not receive a call from the clinic that day and reached out to the facility directly. They told him to come in the next day for COVID-19 testing.
“When he arrived at the clinic, he had to wait in queue for two hours until he got to talk to someone, and was told to come back the next morning,” Siv told MWN.
“He spoke to others that had been to the clinic several times and waited for hours, only to be asked to come back the next day.”
The next morning, Siv and Jaouhar went to the clinic together. The staff asked them to come back in the afternoon.
After Jaouhar, 28, provided his personal data to a staff member, he had to wait in a tent outside the clinic. This is when Siv, a foreign resident of Morocco, started to realize that this COVID-19 testing experience was more than just inconvenient—it was potentially unsafe.
“This place had no hygienic conditions at all and the ground was full of waste from the test kits, plus tissue paper and used gloves,” she told MWN.
“It felt totally unsafe just to be in this place. The staff at the clinic seemed to be running around with no purpose, some with face masks and some without.”
After waiting in the tent for 30 minutes, Siv said a man in “full protective gear” arrived to take Jaouhar’s personal information again. Another 30 minutes passed and the man came back with the COVID-19 test kit.
“He put everything on a chair without cleaning it first, no paper sheet to protect the test kit from potential viruses on the surface of the chair. The test was carried out under what seemed like very dirty conditions,” she stressed.
The clinic told Jaouhar his COVID-19 test result would be ready in 48 hours, on Friday.
A week of waiting, a week of possibly transmitting COVID-19
That Friday, Jaouhar returned to the clinic to pick up his results. They told him he would now have to wait until Monday.
Monday morning came, and Jaouhar and Siv went back to the clinic. Siv said they waited for one hour and staff again told them to come back in the afternoon.
When they returned, the couple waited another 45 minutes before a doctor told Jaouhar his COVID-19 test results would not be ready until the next day, Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Jaouhar called the clinic several times asking for an update. They promised his result would be ready on Wednesday.
Come Wednesday, the doctor informed Jaouhar that his test result had been lost. He would have to go through the entire process again.
“During his contact with the clinic, there was no information given on how to act as a potential COVID-19 carrier,” Siv said.
The clinic did not ask him if he was feeling sick or if there were elderly relatives in the household, and did not offer any information about quarantining while awaiting his test result.
“There are no national procedures existing [in Morocco] when it comes to COVID-19 testing, or at least none are implemented at the clinic in Inezgane,” she continued.
“The staff seemed unprofessional and confused about what to do. There seemed to be a general lack of hygienic procedures in order to reduce the danger of spreading the virus.”
She added that without sufficient information on how to act while awaiting test results, potential COVID-19 carriers can put those around them at risk.
“People are forced to travel back and forth many times to the clinic both for the test and the results. During these travels and the days passing they can potentially infect a lot of people both in public transport, friends and relatives,” Siv stressed.
“If this is the normal and general experience at Moroccan COVID-19 clinics, how can anybody be safe in this country and how can we trust any numbers presented in the media?”
Poor capacity’s long reach
Even in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, some people seeking COVID-19 testing and treatment have complained of poor infrastructure and a lack of coordination within medical facilities.
More than 11 people from Safaa Kasraoui’s family went to a clinic for COVID-19 testing after one of her uncles received confirmation he was infected. Like Jaouhar, Safaa’s family experienced problems at the facility.
Safaa described to MWN how her family had to wait for hours in the crowded clinic, forced to sit in dirty conditions and even on the ground.
Overcrowding made it impossible to respect social distancing measures. They saw others sitting outside under the scorching sun.
Safaa’s family saw a security guard handing out COVID-19 test results, not medical staff.
“My family said that some people there clearly had COVID-19 symptoms,” Safaa told Morocco World News.
“You can see the symptoms in their face, that they are infected with the coronavirus. They are mingling with people who don’t have symptoms, who just went to hospital to get tested because they made contact with a case.”
She said some of her family members had their test results within 48 hours while others waited at least five days.
“People get tested for COVID-19 and go back to their houses and wait for the results. What if they have the virus and spread it to their family or to people on public transportation? They need to make centers to quarantine those cases instead of letting them go back to their normal life,” Safaa stressed.
She went on to describe how one of her uncles needed medical treatment late at night, and her family faced immense challenges while trying to secure his admission to a hospital. Other family members went to the field hospital of Sidi Yahya El Gharb, where they said doctors were not often present.
“One of my cousins staying at Sidi Yahya had complications,” Safaa said, describing fever and a rash that enveloped her cousin’s body.
“She was calling for a doctor and nobody showed up until after three days, that’s what she told me.”
Overwhelmed but improving health facilities
In a country with a clear shortage of doctors and dated medical infrastructure, these first-hand accounts of public Moroccan hospitals’ poor management of COVID-19 testing and patients are precisely what Morocco sought to avoid with its quick and at times harsh response to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that strict lockdown measures and economic stagnation for nearly four months were not enough to protect Morocco’s hospitals from shouldering overwhelming waves of COVID-19 cases, like facilities in most countries.
Despite Morocco’s healthcare deficits, the country’s hospitals, clinics, and laboratories have conducted COVID-19 testing on more than two million people and supported the recovery of over 52,000 patients.
For a lower-middle-income economy that secured independence in living memory, a country that was able to support its African neighbors in their own pandemic response, a country internationally recognized for its efficacy in keeping case numbers low, Morocco’s prioritized health infrastructure is on a clear path to improvement.