Hit by Virus and Drought, Rural Moroccans Tighten Belts for Eid

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Moroccan farmer Hamid had pinned his hopes on selling his sheep for the Eid al-Adha feast, to make up for a year of drought and the economic paralysis linked to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But snap domestic travel restrictions imposed by the North African country's authorities on Sunday after a surge in new infections has cast a pall over trade ahead of the festival Friday.

While the Moroccan countryside has seen fewer infections than the kingdom's cities, it has been hit hard by the economic repercussions of the crisis.

"We lowered our prices in response to weak demand," Hamid said, a mask slung under his chin. 

For the 54-year-old farmer, who heads to market every year ahead of Eid to sell his livestock for slaughter, "the most important thing is to earn money after months of hardship when we had zero income."

According to a study by the High Commission for Planning (HCP), in charge of official statistics, the drop in income has affected 70 percent of the rural population compared to 59 percent of urban dwellers, and 77 percent of farmers have seen their revenues fall in recent months.  

This is in part because people from rural areas "who work in the city and transfer a good part of their income to their families have stopped doing so after losing their jobs," agronomist Larbi Zagdouni told AFP.

- 'Pay off debts' -

The lockdown imposed for around 10 weeks from mid-March compounded problems for farmers already facing a severe drought in a country heavily dependent on agriculture. 

In difficult times, many farmers rely on selling their livestock to "reduce losses and pay off debts," 34-year-old farmer Abdellatif said. 

Eid al-Adha will still be celebrated this year even though mosques will not hold public prayers and travel restrictions will limit the traditional family gatherings held during the holiday. 

Seated on the back of a truck carrying sheep to the Skhirat market near the capital Rabat, Abdellatif says he thinks not celebrating the feast of sacrifice "would be a disaster". 

Zagdouni echoed this, saying, "This festival is important for rural areas and particularly during this period of crisis. Banning it would be a catastrophe for rural areas."

Last year, overall revenues related to Eid al-Adha reached about 12 billion dirhams (around $1.3 billion), according to the agriculture ministry. 

But concerns have been raised, cited by local media in recent weeks, that celebrating the holiday could exacerbate the health crisis as a result of families coming together. 

Authorities decided not to ban celebrations but have required social distancing and wearing masks, levying fines for non-compliance. 

But observance of the measures on the ground is mixed, with social distancing largely ignored in markets packed with un-masked buyers and vendors. 

Faced with general laxity on anti-virus rules, authorities have increased calls for "responsibility" and Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb urged the population to "avoid unnecessary visits", limit physical contact and "ensure preventive measures are respected during family gatherings." 

Morocco has in recent days seen record case numbers, reporting 811 new infections on Saturday and 633 on Sunday. The total number of cases in the kingdom stands at 20,278, including 313 deaths. 

The travel restrictions slapped on eight cities over the weekend sparked chaos across the country, with giant traffic jams on the roads and train stations crammed with people wanting at all costs to spend the festival with family.

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