TACKLING COVID-19 IN THE KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia 2021 | HEALTH | FOCUS: THE COVID-19 RESPONSE

COVID-19 pushed every country's emergency response systems to the brink, but Saudi Arabia has been effective in minimizing the disruption and damage caused the pandemic by implementing a quick and dynamic response.

The Saudi government's response to the COVID-19 crisis has been largely successful thanks to a visionary mindset and robust response, allowing the Kingdom to effectively and quickly respond to the crisis. Observers expect further improvements as 2021 progresses and increasing numbers of Saudis receive vaccinations.

Thanks to developments made on the back of Vision 2030 in health infrastructure and economic diversification, the Kingdom was able to address the pandemic more effectively than many other nations. The deployment of a number of e-government health services in the years leading up to the pandemic—including the healthcare appointment gateway Mawid, the public health campaign app Sehhaty, the Health Electronic Surveillance Network, and the patient tracing platform Taqasi—has put the nation in a better position than many global peers when it comes to addressing the unique requirements of the global health crisis. The Kingdom's unique position as the destination of the hajj has also given public health officials ample opportunity to test and scale its tools during one of the largest public health events in the world.

Contact tracing has also been an essential piece of the Kingdom's fight against the virus. To ensure it could implement a scalable program, the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) released two smartphone apps, Tawakkalna and Tabaud, aimed at monitoring movement during curfew and notifying individuals when they may have come into contact with individuals with confirmed COVID-19 cases, respectively. In addition, the National Health Emergency Operation Centre deployed its Tetamman app, which is intended to provide informational guidelines for home isolation as well as follow-up functionality for tracing symptoms and contacts.

Now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved by Saudi health authorities, the vaccination program is set to unfold in three phases. The initial phases are set to cover Saudis 65 and over and will extend to frontline health workers and other groups with a high risk of exposure. The second stage will see everyone 50 and over vaccinated, while the remainder of the population will be inoculated in the third. Thanks to the impressive health infrastructure developed by the Saudi government in recent years, the Kingdom has been able to more effectively combat the virus than many global actors.

One of the areas that has particularly impressed observers was the quick rollout of economic packages and stimulus measures aimed at minimizing the economic side effects of the pandemic. To date, the Kingdom has announced nearly USD61 billion in aid packages for the private sector. Included in this stimulus have been exemptions and postponements for government fees, roughly USD13.3. billion to support the financial and SME sectors, and a wage subsidy that covers 60% of private-sector employee wages. The scheme includes direct payments to banks and financing companies and will allow SMEs to delay their loan payments by up to six months. To support business continuity and operations, the stimulus will also make funds available for SMEs to access directly through loans.

Such quick actions have gone a long way toward improving prospects for these vulnerable economic actors. According to the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises (Monshaat), SMEs saw 10% growth in online sales since the pandemic began. Despite this success, however, a recent whitepaper from Monshaat revealed that 79% of SME were still not using any form of electronic services to support their operations. While companies that were already operating online have been able to expand their operations on the web, there is a danger of SMEs that lack an online presence being unable to benefit from the shift to online sales. While Monshaat suggests that SMEs adopt an e-business model to help cope with the new economic landscape, it also acknowledges that more government support is necessary to ensure small operators are not lost in the shuffle. Ensuring that SMEs can continue to flourish in the COVID-19 economy is a key focus of the government, and policymakers must work to support these small but vital players.

The Human Resources and Social Development Fund has also allocated approximately SAR5.3 billion to support firms hiring and training Saudi nationals. SMEs that have had to hire expatriates have, however, also received support, as the government has implemented an exemption on the expat fees for three years for companies employing between two and four expats. Additionally, in June 2020, the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) announced its plans to infuse an additional SAR50 billion into the banking sector in order to support liquidity and allow banks to extend credit facilities to firms in the private sector.
As Saudi Arabia continues to navigate the fraught waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, expect the nation to see a relatively rapid recovery thanks to visionary initiatives and quick stimulus action on the part of the government.