Is Algeria On Its Way to Becoming Africa’s Covid-19 Hotspot?

On Tuesday, March 17, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced new prevention measures amid the coronavirus outbreak in Algeria that had already reached 60 confirmed cases that day. The following day, infection tolls totaled 75 confirmed cases and 7 deaths.

With a mortality rate of over 9%, Algeria has one of the world’s highest coronavirus death rates. Observers say such a high rate doubtless owes to the fact that very few people have been tested throughout the country so far.

Earlier this week, the Algerian press reported that only about 1,200 tests were carried out throughout the month, an average of 40 tests per day in a country with more than 40 million inhabitants.

In an interview on Monday, March 16, Algeria’s Health Minister Abderrahmane Benbouzid said that the country has only about 400 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, accounting approximately for one bed per 100,000 inhabitants. The minister’s statements came in response to other claims suggesting much lower figures, such as 200 ICU beds nationwide. Accurate numbers, however, remain difficult to verify.

Algeria’s Controversial Decision to Close All Mosques

Healthcare professionals ⁠— particularly in the city of Blida, the epicenter of the outbreak situated some 45 kilometers southwest of the capital Algiers ⁠— denounced a blatant lack of means to handle the pandemic and to protect themselves from contracting the virus themselves.

In Blida, where 51 cases were confirmed as of Wednesday, March 18, many healthcare workers have been ordered to self-isolate, over suspicion of contracting the virus and fear of infecting fellow professionals or even patients who had not contracted the virus prior to their presence in Algeria’s hospitals.

President Tebboune’s major measures banned all travel to and from Europe, as well as all bordering countries. All civilian flights with connections to the country were also temporarily suspended.

The most contested announcement, however, was that of closing mosques throughout the country, canceling mass prayers and the ban on social gatherings as people have been protesting against the Algerian Government since February of 2019.

Others bridled at the administration’s decision to close all mosques —an unprecedented event in the Muslim-majority country— stirring further dissent toward a government that has ruled through uncertainty and incompetence ever since the ousting of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April, 2019.

However, the majority of Algerians praised the initiative and even said that, if anything, it came about rather late.

These are Trying Times

On social media, Algerian users have been pushing a petition to “transform the Great Mosque of Algiers into a hospital to help the infected”. The Great Mosque of Algiers, which was one of Bouteflika’s major projects, had cost about three times its initial budget of one billion euros and was completed even later than Bouteflika’s resignation.

The Algerian Government also warned against stocking supplies and the spread of misinformation about the pandemic on social media. But the Government’s main challenges remain those of its healthcare system’s ineptitude in the face of the relentless spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as of a looming financial crisis as energy prices have been slumping in recent weeks.

Algeria, an OPEC member, has long relied on oil and gas production, which accounts for 98% of its yearly export revenues. On Wednesday, March 18, the Brent crude oil price crashed to its worst level since 2003 with $24.52 per barrel.

Analysts are expecting the prices to go even lower as Saudi Arabia and Russia are still battling over prices while neither of them accepted to cut production after Russia first refused to sign up to OPEC’s production cut proposal earlier this month, whereas the coronavirus pandemic had already led to a major decrease in demand worldwide. These are trying times, to say the least.