The Moroccan government announced plans to end the state of emergency on June 10; however, local media report another prolongation is set to be announced.
Silence reigns over the once-bustling, vibrant, and chaotic square. Broken chairs are stacked messily outside locked doors, the shops are closed, and the cats who beg for scraps at the butchers’ door have ceased their mewing.
“Things won’t return to normal quickly,” said Khalid, 39, who runs a small grillade (meat grilling cafe) in one of Casablanca’s poorest neighborhoods. “Many of us have had no income for months now, and that won’t change with the end of the lockdown.”
Khalid, a father of two with another baby on the way, fears Moroccans will not have the spending power they had before the lockdown, meaning a very slow re-launch for his business and long summer with no money in his pockets.
“I just don’t think people will be able to afford things like eating out, even if the price isn’t high, most of our neighbors are struggling to pay for food,” Khalid said, trying to keep to the tone of panic from his voice.
Khalid turned the telephone camera to show the change in the neighborhood. Next to his grillade sits a small fruit and vegetable stall, its elderly owner is nowhere to be seen. Some days he does not even open. “He sells the basics, potatoes, onions, but he doesn’t have many customers these days,” Khalid said.
For the first month or so of the lockdown, Haj Mohammed had given out stock on credit, trusting his neighbors to pay him back when they could. As the months dragged on and the lockdown continued, he could no longer afford to cover the expenses and his customers had stopped coming out of shame.
Hundreds of miles along the Atlantic coastline in the coastal city of Essaouira, the historic medina echoes with emptiness. The tourists have gone, and, though the state of emergency is set to end on June 10, no flights will come in for months ahead.
At the medina’s Bab Doukala, a weary man and his small son sort silently through the rubbish bins, desperately searching for something to eat or sell. When a car drives by, they hide their faces, staring at the wall. The father places a shaking hand on his son’s shoulder.
“For many of us it has come to this,” said Adil Ilhihi, 29. “I can’t afford to feed my family, the monthly stipend from the government is not enough and it takes too long to come.”
“I am ashamed,” he said simply, unable to look at the telephone camera.
Adil drives one of Essaouira’s 120 horse and cart taxis from Bab Doukala to Aswak Assalam supermarket and the Sunday market. With no tourists, no market, and no customers, Adil was forced to sell his horse to buy food for his family.
“My father is dead, I have to take care of my mother, my wife, our children. I didn’t have a choice,” he said earnestly. “I couldn’t afford to feed her.”
“Even if the lockdown ends next week, I am stuck. I can’t afford to buy a new horse and there is no work for people like me. Everyone is desperate,” Adil said bleakly.
Adil is among Morocco’s millions of informal workers who the government pledged to support amid the coronavirus crisis. Stipends from the state’s emergency coronavirus fund have helped as many 4.3 million households, but, for many, the government aid is not enough.
A long road to follow
Further away from the medina in a more affluent neighborhood, the doors of Brahim Nekhoua’s hanout (grocery shop) remain firmly open.
“I am lucky,” he laughed. “Even coronavirus can’t close my shop!”
COVID-19 could not quell Brahim’s buoyant nature, either. “The end of lockdown can’t come soon enough! I want my children out of the house,” the jovial shop keeper laughed.
“I don’t know why they won’t just go into the garden. Always on their phones,” he said, narrowing his eyes in mock disapproval.
Brahim’s teenagers are keen to see their friends and some of Essaouira’s beautiful summer sun, but the shopkeeper was clear that his boys would be doing some serious catching up on school work.
“I want to find a tutor for them,” he said more seriously. According to Brahim, the government’s online teaching initiatives were efficient but, in his words, “my boys need someone sitting in front of them to make them work!”
Brahim was not all smiles, however. “My boys have an internet connection at home, we’re not struggling for food so I can pay Inwi. I don’t think many of their classmates have been able to follow all the lessons on phones or even on TV.”
“Things are difficult for a lot of people and I don’t think they will get better for a long time. Even the better-off people in Essaouira just don’t have money and can’t afford luxuries,” he said, in a steely tone.
Brahim, like Khalid in Casablanca, shared serious concerns about Moroccans’ purchasing power, fearing that, though COVID-19 could not shut his doors, a lack of customers would.
Further inland, in the iconic ochre city of Marrakech, Najat Nguimi, a preschool teacher, fears for her pupils and their families.
“Everyone I know is struggling. I worry that the little ones will not have enough to eat if this carries on. For parents’ mental health it will be very hard too,” she said.
A frown-line broke out above Najat’s dark eyes. “The anxiety and stress of it all will be very hard on parents and children. When a father or mother does not know how he can feed his child, he cannot respect himself.”
“I don’t know what will happen to them,” she said, holding back the tears threatening to fall.
Behind Najat, haunting stillness echoes through the medina and the sun sets over the vibrant tourist trap that was Marrakech three months ago.