Policy and institutional responses to COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa: Morocco

Employees collect protective face masks from the production line at a factory as Morocco starts to increase their production following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Casablanca, Morocco April 10, 2020. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Morocco accounted for 9 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as of November 2020. What started out as a well-managed medical emergency between March and May 2020 quickly devolved into a worrying and uncontrolled outbreak, as cases spiked over the summer and then again in November. While Morocco tries to strike an appropriate balance between saving the economy and limiting the loss of life, the government is banking on purchasing and testing vaccines as its public health sector is stretched beyond capacity.

The Moroccan regime’s initial security response to the coronavirus pandemic was strong and proactive (closing borders, mandatory general lockdown, and social distancing). The strength of this response is partially credited for the country’s relatively low number of contaminations and deaths between March and May 2020. However, Morocco’s response encountered two obstacles: first, the lockdown and social distancing measures in general were relaxed after three months; second, the lockdown was not implemented equally across geographic areas and security officers were not deployed in an even manner. The major concern that the virus could spread rapidly through community transmission in urban slums, rural areas, agricultural sites, and factories was not addressed through special measures. In fact, major spikes in contamination were associated with the continued operation of certain farms and factories despite lockdown measures.

A special fund was created to raise money to help those impacted by the pandemic. This fund was successful in getting public personalities and citizens to donate. However, there is significant ambiguity around the special fund (how funds are being used, how much has been raised, etc.). Other positive arrangements made early on include the massive production and distribution of affordable masks (though there was a delay in the initial distribution in April) and the successful collaboration between the private and public sectors to increase the production of medical and pharmaceutical supplies.

The daily communication on the state’s epidemiological response to the pandemic was also successful. It was consistent and accessible to a large portion of the population; however, it could also have been improved. There were problems with communicating major decisions transparently and on a clear schedule. Indeed, several decisions about the lockdown were announced on social media sites at late hours. Furthermore, in March, two committees were created to deal with the health and economic dimensions of the pandemic and advise the regime on strategy; however, this positive step was overshadowed by poor communication regarding their decisions and procedures.

The greatest weakness brought out by the pandemic is Morocco’s frail and poorly funded health care system. The shortage of medical personnel (32,000 below the World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended threshold for doctors, and 64,000 for nurses) exacerbated the situation, while the lack of sufficient hospitals and intensive care units sent the regime scrambling to set up field hospitals. The spike in contaminations during the summer and following months has further stretched the capacity of the system, and reports from some COVID-19 patients suggest there is a lack of resources and treatment space. There also were weaknesses in terms of the response time and reliability of testing. Existing disparities in terms of access to treatment between rural and urban areas was amplified during the global pandemic.

In terms of the economic response, Morocco’s fiscal realities limit what it can do to alleviate pressures on citizens. However, a significant effort was made, and the creation of a committee to monitor the economic impact of the pandemic was beneficial. The central bank increased liquidity provision to the banking sector by providing foreign exchange swaps to domestic banks, increasing refinancing operations for small businesses, expanding the range of collateral to include public and private debt instruments, bringing reserve requirements down from two percent to zero, and reducing the benchmark lending rate. Since March, the government has worked with banks to provide small and medium businesses and self-employed individuals with initial three-month loan deferrals and then interest-free loans. The government also promised stipends to workers impacted by coronavirus-related unemployment and underemployment. While these stipends were helpful to many, the amount distributed was not sufficient to meet the basic needs of average workers, and the aid was not always distributed on a regular basis. Overall, communication about the economic response was lacking, inconsistent, and sporadic.

The economic impacts and management of the crisis have highlighted major weaknesses in Morocco’s economy, which is in dire need of reform and diversification. Overall, Morocco’s macroeconomic balances were negatively impacted by the pandemic, a harsh drought, and a decline in phosphate exports. The trade deficit has also widened by 23.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020. Economic growth receded by 1.1 percent in the first quarter of 2020, and by 1.8 percent in the second quarter. Because of a breakdown in supply chains, most major export sectors are suffering, and exports dropped by 17 percent by the end of July 2020.