On March 15, the number of cases in Morocco jumped to 28, all new infections coming from international tourists. I started to understand why Moroccans scream “corona” at us on the streets.
Casablanca – What is it like to be an expat in Morocco during the COVID-19 crisis? Weeks before Morocco experienced panic-buying, it was March 2, my last day in Rotterdam, and I was trying to buy disinfectant hand gel. But every hygienic product, whether it was masks, tissues, or the gel, is sold out in every store in the city. So far, only my hypochondriac friends are concerned.
March 3. I arrive in Fez. I see many people wearing masks at Brussels airport; some look very sophisticated.
On the plane, I have to fill in a “corona card” explaining whether I traveled through China anytime recently and whether I had a fever, worked in a hospital, or was in contact with somebody infected in the past 14 days. Passengers give the “corona card” to the officials during the passport control. Nobody checks whether the information I provided is true.
March 4. I arrive in Casablanca, at the language school where I will work in the upcoming months. There are no signs of the coronavirus. There is only slight annoyance among the locals at the “overreaction of the West.” In the end, to them, “It is just like seasonal flu, and people always get sick in the winter.”
March 6. I start organizing a trip to Ouzoud waterfalls for the students of the school. We get almost no responses, and my boss blames the “corona fear.” Students repeat that the coronavirus is “just like regular flu” and that “it won’t reach Morocco.” So far, there have been two cases in Casablanca, the only cases in the whole of Morocco.
Morocco is ‘too hot’ for COVID-19
March 7. I enter a French class where the teacher made “coronavirus” the topic. Eight-year-old kids recite from their notebooks: “Coronavirus is a dangerous respiratory disease. To prevent catching it, wash your hands often and avoid big gatherings.” I am not sure how I feel about this.
March 8. About 20 volunteers are staying in the two language schools. We expats all believe nothing will happen in Morocco as COVID-19 “cannot survive” in temperatures higher than 25 degrees Celsius. There are seven infections in Morocco so far, one death. My Moroccan hosts say it was an 89-year-old woman who died of other related diseases rather than COVID-19.
March 10. A Chinese volunteer joins the school. We walk around, and people scream “corona” at her. She replies with “F*** you, racist [expletive].” I cannot say it is not amusing. Students in the school tell me that the coronavirus is an American conspiracy. My mother calls, telling me that the cases in Poland are much higher than the government is saying.
March 11. The Chinese volunteer learns that her university in Dublin is shutting down. She takes the notice with hilarity, considering whether she should stay for longer. In Morocco, there is still only one death. I am starting to get pictures of empty supermarkets from my family and friends staying in Europe. It seems like toilet paper is currently the biggest concern of humanity.
March 12. My Finnish friend is flying from Rotterdam to join the Ouzoud trip. Moroccans start screaming “corona” at white people, too. We are drinking wine and feeling fine.
Late at night, we learn that Spain closed its borders. Some volunteers consider traveling to Europe immediately. The rest are contemplating waiting out the madness in a warm, sunny place. Two Australian girls who had left for Spain are coming back because their ferry was canceled. My mum tells me that the Polish government is considering closing off entire cities.
March 13. Both of my Finnish friends’ universities shut down. We spend a lovely day at the beach, dancing Afro-house, and making plans to head down south, to Ghana or Senegal, to wait out the crisis. By the evening, most of Europe is announcing closing borders.
The response of volunteers as expats in Morocco is mixed: Some stay calm, believing in the low mortality of COVID-19; some panic because of the indefinite period of borders being closed; some pack their luggage and flock to the airport to wait for the earliest flight to Europe.
Morocco announces its schools will close from Monday on, and my Moroccan hosts blame it on “French colonialism.” I do not know what to do. I consider flying to Poland and being quarantined at my dad’s house, but I am not too keen on leaving Morocco. Getting back to what is now the center of the pandemic seems somewhat illogical to me. The new conspiracy is that the virus is a biological weapon the Russian government created.
March 14. Maybe it was actually the Chinese government. Today is the day of the trip to Ouzoud Falls. My Finnish friend decides not to come half an hour before our departure, joining the crowds of tourists and expats cramming into airports in Morocco to leave before COVID-19 causes more flight cancellations. Within hours, she manages to catch a flight to Helsinki through Istanbul. I am worried she will get stuck in Turkey.
Sixteen people join the trip to the waterfalls. It passes uneventfully, except for me frantically refreshing my news feed, and more people screaming “corona” at us on the streets. A Spanish friend manages to make it to Spain on a ferry, but her French companion cannot as they are only allowing nationals in.
March 15. My friend made it to Helsinki, right on time as today Morocco suspends all international flights. Their move comes after the number of cases jumps to 28 in Morocco, all new infections coming from international tourists. I start to understand why they scream at us on the streets.
We are worried whether our Chinese friend will make her flight to Dublin at 8 p.m. since the decision came at 2 p.m. Fortunately, she makes it. The owner of the schools must drive to Marrakech in the middle of the night: A newly arrived French volunteer was denied a place on a bus, being told that no buses are running. She panicked.
The government announces the closing of restaurants and bars in the Netherlands, and marijuana consumers are queueing in front of coffee shops.
Living in a film noir
March 16: I go to the supermarket in the morning to stock up. The notice at the entrance says, “We have enough supplies for the months to come.” I guess it is supposed to be soothing.
The guy standing in front of me in the queue is buying maybe 50 kilograms of flour and 50 liters of water. I did not buy toilet paper. I feel brave. This is the first day that I see Moroccans wearing face masks.
I spend three hours in a market, desperately trying to fix my laptop, which broke four days earlier. It is fixable, but they would need to order parts, and all the markets are closing as of today at 6 p.m. We leave at 5:40 p.m. with all my files retrieved, and I start to feel like I am living in a “film noir” movie. Some people are also wearing latex gloves. I am not sure that is supposed to help. There are 28 cases in Morocco and one death.
March 17: I take a shared taxi to another school. More and more people are wearing masks—I wonder if they wear them under the burqas, too? The new order is that a shared taxi, which usually has the capacity of up to seven passengers, takes no more than three. Taxi drivers do not care too much for the order. Under the rule, they would never break even on the ride. There just are not enough people that want to drive.
The food markets are open, but the streets are empty. The darkness of the sight is amplified by the low clouds. They seem like they could fall on us anytime, burying this misery, maybe for the best. Some say the “establishment” created the virus to kill off the elderly.
Boys in my apartment went out to play football and made it onto the local news, causing outrage over why they are outside. Somebody threw glass bottles at them. The second death happens in Morocco, a 75-year-old man. The number of cases jumps to 38.
March 18: The taxi drivers take only three passengers, but they double the prices. Together with an Argentinian volunteer, I take a stroll around the medina (old city). The place that is usually the heart of the city with all its souvenirs and food booths currently has all the charm of a ghost town. We enjoy seeing the old buildings in Morocco without the bustle, just as much as not having COVID-19-wary people scream “corona” at us expats today, yet.
Special stalls, selling only disinfecting gels, all kinds of random cleaning supplies, and latex gloves, have opened. On the way back, we find our neighborhood pharmacy closed and almost attacked by a group of at least 10 angry would-be customers.
I stay inside for the rest of the day; the Argentinian volunteer goes out to buy orange juice, but the vendor refuses to sell. Along with a a group of men on the streets, the vendor screams “corona” at her. Meanwhile, Europe is adjusting to the new stay-at-home situation with webinars, while streaming websites note record numbers. Morocco has 44 cases and two deaths.
March 19: I only leave the house to go rollerblading, wondering whether I am being socially irresponsible. I try to skate far away from any passer-by. It definitely helps that there are not many. There are almost no women on the streets; men smile at me politely, just as they did before the outbreak of the madness.
I soak up the emptiness of the streets, skating in the middle, forgetting everything for a little while. There are maybe seven guys in a usually crowded skate park. One tells me that a man came the day before and kicked everybody out. Maybe I will finally have some time to learn how to jump these ramps. There must be some upsides, right?
I come back home and find all my roommates unfolded on the floor in a collective yoga pose: The house is becoming sort of a cultural center, with yoga at 11 a.m. and salsa at 5 p.m. I do not have time to join in, I need to write this all down, my experiences as an expat in Morocco amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Some boys went out to play football, and a random stranger confiscated their ball and shouted at them to leave. They moved to a nearby street, and a policeman ordered them to go back home. “No more football.”
There is no more news from Europe, but cases in Morocco jump to 58, and it starts looking worrying.
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