Hard Work to Get Back to ‘Normal’

Saudi Arabia Expected to Reach Herd Immunity by August
A medical worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the first drive-through vaccination center in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on March 4, 2021. (Getty)

“It took me a click of a button to book the Covid-19 vaccination for my wife on the Sehhaty (My Health) App, Saudi Arabia’s digital passport. The time was 4:00 a.m. at the Vaccination Center at the old King Abdul Aziz Airport premises. Although there were many cars in the parking lot, she finished in just 25 minutes and we reached home before 5:00 a.m.,” Ahmed Hasan, a Jeddah-based Egyptian expat, told Majalla, describing his wife’s smooth experience of her Covid-19 vaccination.

Ahmed and his wife are among 15 million citizens and expats who have already gotten their novel Coronavirus vaccinations for free. The Saudi Ministry of Health (MoH) covers the treatment of people infected with the wide-spreading virus as well as the cost of tests and the double shots of the vaccine.

Saudi MoH is speeding up the vaccination process nationwide. The government is taking more steps so that life can go back to ‘normal.’ Let us explore what kind of ‘normal’ the Saudi government is planning to reach by August.

Nursing staff wait at the location where the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine (Tozinameran) is being administered as part of a vaccination campaign by the Saudi health ministry in the capital Riyadh on December 17, 2020. (Getty)

HERD IMMUNITY

‘Herd immunity’ or ‘population immunity’ is what the Kingdom seeks to achieve through its intense vaccination campaign.  Nearly 600 vaccination centers are working around the clock to cover as much of the population as possible. People with Covid-19 infections get equal healthcare whether they are citizens, expats or illegal migrants based on a royal decree issued last year. Saudi citizens do not have the priority over expats regarding the vaccination. Those who book first have the priority regardless of their background. Only people over 60 years old, both citizens and expats, have the priority over other demographic segments.

During Majalla’s visit to one of the vaccination centers in Jeddah, West of the Kingdom, it was noticeable that more than two-thirds of the people waiting for their turn to get vaccinated were Asian expats. A quick chat with a few of them showed that they work in the service sectors, where vaccination is obligatory. Others told me their companies asked them to get immune before August. Why August? The government will not allow entry to government premises, malls, company offices and many places without getting the first jab.    

According to the latest stats, 35,000,000 is the total population of the Kingdom. Saudis form around 60% and the rest are expats. Around 70% of the total population, 24.5 million people, must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. The MoH posts the numbers of jabs on its social media channels with 120,000 - 150,000 shots given daily to the population. It will take the government around a couple of months to reach ‘population immunity.’

Saudi passengers observe a safe distance as they wait their fligts at terminal 5 in the King Fahad International Airport, designated for domestic flights, in the capital Riyadh on May 31, 2020, after authorities lifted the ban on flights within the country. (Getty)

BACK TO CLASSROOMS

All the staff and students of public and private unis, colleges, and vocational schools will go back to classrooms on the 29th of August based on a decision issued by the Ministry of Education (MoE). Only basic education students must wait until the situation is assessed, and MoE issues new decisions.

“Herd immunity would allow life to get back to normal. Basically, we cannot call it ‘normal,’ but it is rather the new ‘normal’ as precautionary measures will continue to be taken despite the ‘herd immunity,’” said Read Abed, a Saudi HR professional.

“The government is working hard to restore life to the February 2020 levels. It is not easy to get there. The pandemic has turned the world upside down and we are part of that world. The economy is picking up. This is good. I am afraid we might wait longer until we remove masks and interact freely with each other without physical distancing,” he added.

THE NEW NORMAL

In Saudi Arabia there is no distinct definition for the new normal on which everyone agrees. Does it mean wearing the mask all the time you are outside home? Does it mean that physical distancing will continue or that we will be afraid of hugging each other despite the soothing feeling of hugging and touching hands?

Alaa Fuad is a real estate broker. He believes he will not hug or cheek-kiss his friends for the rest of his life. He told Majalla: “I cannot imagine myself shaking hands with anyone. Covid-19 has woken me up. It is normal for me now to greet friends whom I did not see for months just by touching arms or even without. I really appreciate how most Asian peoples greeted each other before the pandemic.” 

Not everyone will agree with Alaa. However, the fact that nobody can predict the end of the pandemic even after herd immunity is reached will make it harder for people to greet each other the way they did before March 2020.

Social distancing is making it harder for malls, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues to accommodate people according to the normal capacity. Do future investors have to take social distancing into consideration when designing their shops or offices?

“It is really confusing. Nobody can predict even the near future. Travelling is not as enjoyable as it used to be not too long ago. I really miss wedding and graduation parties. Despite all that, I am optimistic that once herd immunity is achieved, we will have more freedom and be close to what we used to call ‘normal,’” concluded Dina, a 25-year-old private sector employee.