March 03, 2021
TANGIERS — All they have to do is send a text, and a few seconds later Moroccans have their vaccine appointment. The country has overtaken Germany in the vaccination race. And while Europe is languishing in lockdown, life in Morocco is almost back to normal. What is the secret to their success?
Even from the street, the sign over the entrance to the Roi Fahd Health Center in Tangiers is clearly visible. "COVID-19" is written in the middle in large red letters, with pictures of syringes on either side. The pillars are festooned with flags bearing Morocco's national emblem — two lions with a shield and crown and the five-pointed star, which represents life and health.
The healthcare facility, in the city's Charf quarter, is one of 288 vaccine centers in the region. In the courtyard, people wearing masks stand in the shade of palm trees, waiting their turn to be vaccinated. Inside, the waiting room is also full — although people are of course observing social distancing. There's no opportunity for the 30 staff members to take a breather. From morning until night, there is always a doctor or nurse in each of the three rooms, ready to administer the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Demand is high. "At first, some people had reservations, but when they saw that no one had side effects, they started to come," says Dr Karima Reklaoui, the health center's medical director. "Yesterday we administered 267 vaccinations, and today it could be 300, which is our maximum capacity."
When asked about anti-vaxxers and coronavirus deniers, she gives a tired smile. "No, no, thank God — we don't have any of that. You can't take it seriously," she says. "In Morocco people definitely want to be vaccinated."
Everyone is tired of the restrictions and wants to return to normal life, the 50-year-old doctor explains. "And the vaccine is the only way to do that."
Getting vaccinated has been made very easy for Moroccans. There are no hotlines to call or letters delivered by post. People send a text with their national ID number and a few seconds later they receive a message with a venue and appointment time. It couldn't be simpler.
While Germany and its European neighbors are stumbling through the second wave, Morocco is well on the way to vaccinating itself out of the crisis. In Germany, the seven-day average for first and second vaccines is currently 126,806 per day. Last week Morocco administered an average of 173,920 vaccinations per day.
Morocco is often seen as an exotic holiday destination, but not a country with efficient national leadership. An assumption Europeans make about many African countries. But Morocco is way ahead of Europe at the moment. For a second time, we must admit, because throughout the pandemic it has been far more successful than its European neighbors.
No supply problems
On Jan. 28, in the royal palace in Fez, King Mohammed VI was the first to be vaccinated, sounding the starting gun for a national vaccination campaign. So far, 2.5 million Moroccans have had their first vaccination, in one of 2,888 centers. And every day the number grows by more than 100,000. Teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers and people over 75 have all been vaccinated already.
Morocco is well on the way to vaccinating itself out of the crisis.
Now it's the turn of the over 65s. The aim is to vaccinate 80% of the adult population, which is 25 million people. If everything goes to plan, that could be achieved by the end of May. Morocco has secured 66 million doses of the vaccine.
Thus far there have been no supply problems like those experienced in Germany. In the last few weeks, AstraZeneca flew 6 million doses to Casablanca. A further million came from China, and the company Sinopharm will soon deliver more, as Morocco took part in the early trials of the Chinese vaccine.
The successful vaccine campaign shows once again that Morocco's crisis management is robust. The country did experience a second wave in summer, but managed to control it through a clear strategy of time-limited measures, isolation and hygiene, all while placing a high level of trust in the population. Now the Moroccan Ministry of Health is registering fewer than 500 new infections per day, and around 10 deaths. Infections are going down. Those are numbers that Germany and made other EU countries can only dream of.
"You can see it as a success story," says Professor Hicham Sbai, sitting in his office at the medical faculty of the new Mohammed VI University in Tangiers. "Compared to other countries, Morocco's reaction was faster, stricter and more proactive." He explains that there was a national strategy from the beginning, with involvement from all institutions and stakeholders down to the regional level.
King of Morocco Mohammed VI receiving the COVID-19 vaccine — Photo: Niviere David/Abaca via ZUMA Press
The 43-year-old professor knows what he's talking about. He is a senior doctor in the intensive care ward at the Duc de Tovar Hospital in Tangiers, which has 72 intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients. The neighboring Mohammed VI Hospital has another 40 beds. Professor Sbai is in regular contact with regional authorities and scientific committees.
"It has been and still is a joint effort from everyone involved in the fight against the virus," he says. "From the king to the various ministries, hospitals and laboratories, down to the doctors and nurses who are treating patients."
Going its own way
Morocco closed its borders on March 13 last year and stopped international flights when there were only four known cases of coronavirus in the country. The government also decided to close schools that same day. Shortly afterwards, the authorities declared a medical emergency, which lasted four months. A curfew was imposed from 6 p.m., and travel between cities was forbidden. All shops except supermarkets and chemists were ordered to close.
The authorities made face coverings mandatory from very early on, and stepped up mask production. The ailing public health system was also given a boost, with modern equipment sent to hospitals. Emergency clinics sprang up and vast amounts of medicine were made available.
Treatment centers on the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. European doctors and scientists remain unconvinced about the efficacy of these treatments. "We've seen good results with them, and a low death rate," says Professor Sbai.
One tool above all others has been most important in the country's fight against the virus: contact tracing.
Morocco is indeed going its own way, and its success speaks for itself. But one tool above all others has been most important in the country's fight against the virus: contact tracing. It is at the heart of their anti-COVID measures.
"Whether it's 10 people or 1,000, all an infected person's close contacts have to self-isolate," says Professor Sbai. "For serious cases we admit them to hospital, otherwise they can stay at home and they are monitored by the authorities."
There are currently around 10,000 COVID-19 patients in Morocco. According to official statistics, there have been around 480,000 infections since the start of the pandemic.
The second wave
Last June many Moroccans thought the pandemic was over. On average there were only 152 new infections per day. The restrictions were being eased. The streets and parks were filling up again. "It was the same as in all other countries," says Professor Sbai. "People got careless and what followed was a second, even bigger wave."
But this time the government decided against going back into a hard lockdown. Instead they divided the country into different zones, and only introduced strict measures at a local level if it looked like the number of new infections in an area was getting out of control.
"As the numbers started to go up, contact tracing was the decisive factor again," says Professor Sbai.
It may have taken two months to get the situation back under control, but without contact tracing it wouldn't have been possible at all. "Today the situation is stable again," Professor Sbai says, seeming almost relaxed. "Over the past six weeks or so, the number of patients in intensive care in Tangiers has been constant, at between eight and 10, and the death rate is going down."
This week the government announced that the curfew would be extended for another two weeks. Shops, cafes and restaurants have to close at 8 p.m. From 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., the streets are empty. This latest curfew was introduced before Christmas, when the new strain from the UK was first identified and started to spread.
"The faster we vaccinate people, the sooner we can return to normality," says Dr. Reklaoui. "We've been preparing for four months and now we can vaccinate as many people as possible."
She is very pleased that so far no one has suffered from side effects. "Not a single case," she says. "It comes down to the attitude. If someone is positive about vaccinations, they're less likely to experience side effects than someone who is skeptical about them."
Although her mouth is covered by a mask, you can see in her dark eyes that Dr. Reklaoui is smiling.
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With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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