Far from the madding crowd: Covid-19 in Dakhiliyah

Far from the madding crowd may be an alluring Thomas Hardy novel, but it is also an apt description of the Al Dakhiliyah region, where Nizwa is now a bustling, thriving, centre of commerce. Well, at least it was… until the pandemic struck. It is now a very much muted environment, as the local population responds to the Supreme Committee issued directives on society responses.

Doctor Niren Sachdevra, a prominent member of the local Indian community told the Observer, “COVID-19 has been a disaster, as even the loss of a single life is a tragedy, and there are proving to be severe economic consequences for so many. However, that can be balanced to some extent by the greater emphasis on families, and family time, especially parent and child bonding, meditation, and prayer.”

 A statistical assessment of the current COVID-19 situation in the region is possible via the government statistics, and for now the signs are positive in the hinterland, with 56 identified cases, and half of those have recovered thus far. An un-named physician was cheered by the current Dakhilyah situation saying, “Of course we are busy, and have screened maybe 40-50 people for the virus. All of these proved negative, so that’s very positive. We see every patient as a potential COVID-19 case, so we are very much committed to using the appropriate PPE and insist that all of our clients do the same, for their sake as much as ours.” In fact, it appears, given the timeframe, the region may have ‘dodged a massive bullet.’ “With the huge numbers of students from so far and wide at the Colleges, and the University, the fact that no outbreaks took place on any of the campuses is an absolute miracle,” said another.

The concerned wife of a third medical professional explained that, “Although my husband’s working hours, and his exposure, have been reduced, he is still in a high-risk environment, and that’s a huge concern for us.” This is an entirely understandable emotion under the circumstances and highlights the debt all societies owe to their health professionals for their commitment to their patients and society.

Meanwhile, the students are having difficulty coming to terms with the social upheavals that COVID-19 has wrought, one complaining, “My parents won’t let me go out of the house,” she lamented, “and it’s been a month now, and I’ve only spoken to my other friends on the phone!” However, she did understand that it was for her own good, and if everyone was similarly restricted, “this will end more quickly.” This mixture of frustration and pragmatism appeared deeply characteristic of the region, not only among the young.

Those engaged in higher education have commented on the number of challenges facing them with compulsory e-learning. “It’s not as simple as just saying, ‘let’s e-teach,’ and everything will be fine,” said one. “The teaching dynamic is massively different, and students and teachers are having massive internet difficulties. Working from home is great in one respect, but our service packages require enhancement as we are doing work level duties, from home. The difference is huge!” This will be one certain consequence of the pandemic in the region, surely, is to improve internet services.

Muscat resident Canadian, but working in Nizwa, Dr Mila Gabruk felt that the virus could significantly affect the interior if a ‘stay at home Ramadan’ is a consequence of the pandemic, with Nizwa being generally more conservative than the capital, saying, “That would be big change for people there if the prayers, iftars and general observance of Ramadan were affected. There is no doubt though, that we are being well informed, and the government is doing a good job to keep everyone safe.”

An un-named local resident commented on the government measures put in place by the Supreme Committee saying, “It has been a practical, typically Omani response to say that treatment is free for all, Omanis and expatriates, and again says much about our beautiful country.” Many of the expatriates commented positively on this policy and collectively agreed that the government has been very positive.

Sandy and Malcolm Veitch from the North of England live in Birkat al Mouz, and Sandy reflected that, “There’s no place we would rather be right now, as Britain is a small island with a large population. Here we have sunshine, a secluded walled garden, and mostly, social distancing is being maintained. We miss all our family and friends at home but, as Dame Vera Lynn sang, “We’ll Meet Again.”

Another European expat explained that, “Here we are very fortunate that in a country the same size as the UK there are so few people, so it at least gives us a genuine opportunity to isolate ourselves, and as there have been strict controls on the pricing of sanitizers, masks and gloves it is not expensive, and it is all in our own hands to keep ourselves safe.”

A third, an expatriate housewife thought, “People generally live much more conservatively here. We don’t dine out as much or have as expensive tastes I think.” She laughed too saying, “I see people on the internet begging where to find extravagant items during the lockdown, and I think to myself, that’s silly, I wouldn’t put my life at risk trying to find that!”

The retail sector response has been very diverse, and very much individual, with “Some humble cold store shopkeepers and staff being way ahead of the basic needs in terms of precautions,” according to one local, while the, “delayed responses from medical, and larger retail outlets was disappointing.” “They now appear to have their precautions in place,” said another. Major supermarkets are providing sanitizers, clear screens at weighing points and checkouts, and trying to do their best to respond to social distancing requirements.

It’s clear though, that they are certainly challenged by some of their ‘less than aware’ customers. “You wouldn’t believe it!” said one shopper, “You leave a 2-meter gap to the person in front and next thing, someone, or more, have jumped in, honestly! Then do you think they will move?” While another reported, “I saw shoppers, with no gloves, pick a bunch of grapes, eat a couple, and put the bunch back. Ugh!” Local restaurants meantime do appear to be responding appropriately to the ‘takeaways only,’ orders, while international brands and takeaway places like Pizza Hut and McDonald’s here are providing hand sanitizer. “Pizza Hut is very strict on meeting customer’s outside and social distancing,” said one of their customers cheerfully.

Mothers don’t have it easy just now, with Yesha Srivastava saying, “Being a Mum is challenging at any time and keeping Anvisha (3) separated from other kids means she has so much energy, and it’s very difficult to channel that energy. I’m worried too that her screen-time has increased disproportionately, just adding to my worries.” The theme of children, albeit from another perspective was continued by another European mother who finds it scary that, “It’s almost ominous, not hearing the kids laughing and shouting while they play. It’s normally comforting, and I miss the noise.”

The oilfield services industry in the interior is, as one executive put it, “Definitely feeling the pinch, and it’s difficult to see the economy recovering from this quickly due to the glut in oil production. I know it’s not a Coronavirus thing, but coming at the same time as the oil over- supply, we are going to need to get back to work soon, or we will be in a massive hole we can’t get out of.” His comments were a sobering reminder of just how invasive and intrusive the effects of COVID-19 are.

The region, overall, appears with the limited coverage possible, to be accepting the ‘stay at home’ and social distancing policies in a measured manner, certainly not enthusiastically, but with that pragmatism identified earlier. It is not a wholesale embrace, perhaps rooted in the region’s cultural conservativism, but by the institutional expatriate community at least, with grateful thanks. Dr Sachdevra probably spoke for the entire region as he offered, “We pray to the almighty that we will learn from this experience, and that a permanent and lasting solution can be found.”