Al-Abri: The pandemic will restructure supply chains in many countries and make them more stable.
Othman: Water resources have improved due to suspended industrial activities.
Al-Harthi: An electronic support site has been established to help faculty members acquire e-teaching skills.
Al-Azri: Social solidarity and psychological support platforms help alleviate the impact of COVID-19.
Al-Balushi: Oman enjoys diverse tourism potentials that will lead to revival of tourism beyond the crisis.
The emerging Covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on all aspects of development in the Sultanate. Worldwide, consumer spending has declined, travel and tourism have been disrupted, and industry has slowed down due to movement restrictions. Economic activities and services such as transportation and shopping were also affected, which has led to a decrease in both consumption and demand.
This ongoing crisis has given rise to such crucial questions as: What kind of economic repercussions can we expect as a result of this global epidemic? What impact will it have on society, education, tourism, and the environment? What are the best practices followed by Omani organizations in dealing with the effects of the pandemic? In this regard, Tawasul sheds light on some economic projections, plans and suggestions put forward by prominent scholars from different disciplines, in an attempt to answer such questions.
Dr. Al-Mukhtar Al-Abri - Dean of College of Economics and Political Science - talked about the impact of the pandemic on Omani economy: “The Sultanate, like other oil-exporting countries, was affected by two simultaneous shocks: the global pandemic, and the drop in oil prices; however, despite the decline in oil revenues and the difficult financial situation, the government has quickly responded to alleviate the economic consequences of the crisis through a package of measures to maintain financial stability, support the affected sectors and groups, and stimulate demand to prevent a prolonged economic recession."
Al-Abri added: “The sectors most affected by the pandemic are hospitality, transportation and storage, and wholesale and retail trade (especially durable goods and luxuries); small and self-employed businesses have been particularly impacted. These sectors also require direct interaction (face-to-face) with the consumer; they were affected by the decrease in internal demand and collapse of demand by tourists and business travellers, as a result of border closures.”
As for the strategy that should be followed by such sectors, he stated: “Businesses and commercial companies should modify their business model after the pandemic by making their structures leaner and more responsive to shocks, changing the investment pattern by relying on the rental of equipment and machinery, and reducing the number of permanent employees while using external employees for specific tasks or outsourcing them to another company (for example, packaging and delivery). The pandemic will also lead to restructuring supply chains in many countries and make them more stable and less vulnerable to disruption during crises.”
Regarding the economic measures taken by the Sultanate to confront the pandemic, Al-Abri said: “The government has put in place a set of monetary and financial measures to provide liquidity, reduce the cost of borrowing, and ensure continued provision of credit to the affected sectors. The Central Bank also urged commercial banks to postpone the repayment of private sector loans for a period of six months to support their recovery. The government has adopted some measures to assist small and medium-sized enterprises, including supporting the workforce, deferring payments (such as taxes, rent, utility payments, etc.), and providing interest-free loans from the Development Bank.”
Al-Abri further pointed out that: “COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of expanding strategic sectors, such as food, basic services, and information and technology to overcome long-term turmoil. The changes in the labor market brought about by the pandemic can also be used to reduce imbalances within it, increase the participation of the national workforce, and improve productivity. The pandemic’s repercussions also constitute an opportunity to accelerate structural reform programs, such as developing the private sector and strengthening its partnership with the public sector, as well as improving the effectiveness of government spending and support.”
Challenges to education
Dr. Aisha Al-Harthi - Department of Educational Foundation and Administration – shed light on the educational system in the Sultanate in the light of this pandemic: “There were big differences in how to run the system, in terms of the material and human capacity available in the educational institutions. Those that have a solid electronic infrastructure and the e-learning know-how have readily switched to e-learning, while others heavily relied on free and open source e-learning systems, which caused a small number of staff with little experience in using such systems to be heavily overloaded, and put pressure on teaching staff and students alike. Given the lack of support for infrastructure and e-learning training, the practices were based on trial and error, rather than a pre-planned process.”
Speaking about the teaching system at the University under the current conditions, she said: “All colleges have in place all the tools required to run the system; committees were formed at the colleges and departments to follow up the ongoing operation of e-learning at the University; students were able to seek technical support from a team who managed to sort out their issues or referred them to other concerned units; an electronic support site was established to help faculty members learn e-teaching skills, refine their experience and provide some training courses in e-learning".
She went on: “One of the biggest challenges facing higher-education institutions is simply the lack of both clear policies for e-learning and clear standards for assessing quality of the e-learning provided to students, apart from the large disparity in financial, logistical and training support provided to faculty members and students; this has brought into focus dispersed and different efforts in electronic teaching methods, means of student evaluation, and improving students' ability to e-learn without providing them with appropriate support.”
The environment is the biggest winner
Dr. Muhammed Othman - Center for Environmental Studies and Research - mentioned the positive environmental outcomes the coronavirus has brought us: “An improvement in the quality of water resources was observed due to the strict closure measures and cessation of industrial activities. For example, there was a significant decrease (between 10-40 percent) in the amount of particulate matter in Indian and Italian lakes (Venice), thanks to the closures. In the same context, it has been confirmed that air quality has improved significantly in many cities due to the low emission of pollutant gases during lockdowns. This water and air quality improvement is likely to be temporary, but the results could give us a glimpse of the future as standards for sanitary water drainage and gas emissions become more stringent.”
Othman revealed research findings on wastewater containing waste of corona-infected people, suggesting that it could harm the environment and water resources if not treated properly. In this respect, researchers have suggested analyzing the content of this virus in municipal wastewater in order to track the spread of infection in time and space.
Commenting on the impact of the pandemic on food security, he said: “There has been a considerable impact on crop production systems, supply chains, and global food security. The workforce shortage (due to movement restrictions and social distancing rules) and difficulties in importing/exporting agricultural products have affected the entire food supply chain, including producers, manufacturers and transport companies. There are also reports of agricultural and dairy products being destroyed due to the inability of farmers or traders to transport them from the point of production to local markets or manufacturing centers. The countries exporting basic products (such as energy raw materials) have been hard hit due to a significant decline in demand in the developed countries."
On the impact of the pandemic on society, Aseelah Al-Azri - Center for Humanities Research - said: “Undoubtedly, the pandemic has affected various groups of society. For example, the precautionary measures taken by the supreme committee to combat coronavirus and ban certain commercial activities are quite serious; there have been negative effects on the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises, loan holders, those laid off from work, expats who suddenly found themselves jobless, and families in need of support; other measures included the closure of places of worship, recreation, sports and tourism, the suspension of education, and confining employees to working from their homes; all of this caused restricted movement of individuals and families, thus depriving them from leading their normal lives or performing religious social activities such as praying in mosques, holding wedding parties, funeral gatherings, visiting relatives, and family gatherings on Eid and other occasions.”
She added: "We cannot ignore the fact that the elderly and children are especially vulnerable under these exceptional circumstances, which have forced them to stop short of engaging in many social and entertainment activities, or seeing relatives or friends. As a result, they have undergone great psychological stress, anxiety and panic.”
Al-Azri, however, highlighted one positive outcome of the pandemic: “We’ve seen cases of social solidarity, like giving aid, charity, alms and initiatives by individuals and civil society groups, in addition to online platforms that were focused on delivering counselling to those affected by the pandemic; free online training courses were also provided to a lot of people.”
As regards the measures taken by authorities to minimize the damage inflicted on society by the crisis, she said: “Such measures were evident in the collaborations of different agencies to address the pandemic and its effects; a psychological support initiative has aimed to offer psychological support and counselling through a telephone line on issues related to the pandemic; people also share their achievements and ideas on social media, which sends a positive and reassuring signal to others and underlines a sense of togetherness.”
Consequences for tourism
Dr. Masoumeh Al-Balushi - College of Arts and Social Sciences – underlined the importance of tourism as a key source of national income: “Many countries rely on tourism to generate income and provide jobs. The returns of tourism are economic as well as cultural.”
On the impact of the crisis on the tourism sector, she said: “There is no tourism right now, simply because there is no air travel and the movement of people has been restricted; but we can say that the crisis has also brought positive effects. What do we mean by this? One of the articles of the Tourism Ethics Code provides for freedom of movement, but this is obviously not possible currently. However, tourism does not only mean tours; it is still possible to get some products while you are restricted to one place. There are sectors that have shown extraordinary adaptability and resilience, including the food and beverage industry, and especially small and medium-sized enterprises. If we look at the reality, we will find that large businesses have been adversely affected by the pandemic, while small enterprises have flourished during this period and have proven their ability to survive even under such conditions, and here we see a strange paradox, i.e. the survival of the smallest."
She concluded her remarks by saying: “There will be no tourism until we recover from the pandemic, but with the gradual recovery, everyone will be able to get through this experience. Oman has a strong economy, advanced infrastructure of airports, airlines, modern roads, excellent hotels, archaeological and tourist places, diverse heritage cultures and customs, and spectacular deserts, seas and mountains. All of these can help domestic tourism to recover and advance with confident but cautious steps, and later foreign tourism will also return."