Jordan suffers from an economic crisis in a neighbourhood afflicted by a decline of Arab and international aid. All of this could have been overcome with fewer losses by an efficient government administration. Instead, human stupidity and negligence outperformed artificial intelligence when people refused to respond to warnings from computerised equipment that oxygen was running out.
The death of eight patients due to lack of oxygen was the last thing that Jordan needed after a full year of the coronavirus pandemic. Democratic transition is crawling through a long phase, and there are many issues about political development and reform that remain unresolved.
More than anything else, democracy is the oxygen that Jordan also needs. It would allow a free press to monitor mistakes before they escalate, and enable people to choose their representatives and government.
The government in Jordan is inefficient; as the hospital tragedy exposed, it has unprecedented defects. This is emphasised by the fact that healthcare in Jordan was once a model for the region.
The founder of Hamad Hospital, Dr Kamel Al-Ajlouni, is a former Minister of Health and President of the University of Science and Technology. He is now the president and founder of the National Diabetes Centre.
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When Al-Ajlouni was Minister of Health in the 1970s, there were fewer resources and medical equipment was much less efficient than today. Nevertheless, there was no such incident during his time in office even remotely similar to what happened at Salt Governmental Hospital recently. This is a hospital, by the way, which cost more than $100 million to build and equip; it contains computerised ICU equipment that should leave no room for human error. And yet, staff failed to respond to warnings that they were running out of oxygen.
Nothing can make up for the loss of lives. What can be done, though, is to restore Jordan's reputation for medical excellence, which has been greatly damaged. Medical tourism is a major source of income for the Kingdom. Negligence such as was seen in Salt has a huge impact. Rebuilding this reputation is a complex and difficult process, but it is possible.
Not many of those who follow the news of Jordan, know that Al-Salt is home to Hikma Pharmaceuticals, the largest and most important pharmaceutical company in the Arab world. It was the first Arab company to be listed on global stock exchanges.
It is ironic that it is in partnership with the American pharmaceutical company, Moderna, and has acquired the rights to produce a vaccine against Covid-19. We thus face a surreal situation; a country whose doctors, pharmacists, and businessmen have world-class achievements, but have failed to meet the basic requirements for running a public hospital.
To add to this irony, the director of a private hospital, Dr Nael Al-Masalha, warned the Minister of Health three months ago about a shortage of oxygen. He revealed that Jordan actually imposes a sales tax on oxygen. Instead of providing support for oxygen needed desperately for seriously ill patients in the middle of a pandemic, the Jordanian government imposes a tax on it.
This is an issue which has been seen in other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen, with tragic consequences. Arab writers and activists on social media have drawn attention to the fact that so-called responsible ministers were just as negligent there.
In Jordan, the whole country took action. After the resignation of the Minister of Health, King Abdullah visited Salt Government Hospital, and Jordanians watched him reprimanding the hospital director for what happened. The people united in their grief and anger violated the lockdown rules and took to the streets in protest. One darkly humorous video on Facebook showed one mother in Amman not worrying about her son joining a protest and confronting the police but insisting on him wearing his mask.
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The problems in Jordan require more than cosmetic solutions. According to a 2019 report by the Economic and Social Council about the situation of the country, it requires a change in approach. At that time, the council was headed by a member of the Senate (the King's Council); Mustafa Al-Hamarneh was not part of the opposition.
The most comprehensive recommendation of the report was to emphasise the need to accelerate changes in public administration. It demonstrated the growing lack of trust between the government and the people caused by weak senior management and the absence of oversight and accountability at the institutional level. All of this entrenches the existing approach, which in turn leads to further decline.
There is an empty political phrase in Jordan: an elected government. The Jordanian constitution states that the system of government is representative and royal, and the government is formed from the majority bloc in the House of Representatives. This is what happened in the government of Suleiman Nabulsi in the 1950s, and in the government that won the confidence of the House of Representatives XI from 1989 to 1993. Oxygen is said to be the most expensive commodity when you lack it, while it is actually the cheapest commodity. The same could be said about democracy.
Translated from the New Khaleej, 18 March 2021 and edited for MEMO.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.