When the Coronavirus Pandemic Invaded the World (and Saudi Arabia)

Fatma Al-Otain and Safiah Al-Otain - Saudi Arabia

Fatma Al-Otain is an academic advisor with extensive knowledge in teaching and testing standards in education systems. Fatma is working for the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia and obtained her PhD in “Technology in Education” at Newcastle University, UK. She is also certified as a school inspector and advocates for teaching and learning development in Saudi schools.

Safiah Al-Otain is an assistant professor in Qur’anic studies at Princess Noura University, KSA, where she has been a faculty member since 2005. Her research interests are in Quranic readings and legal studies on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Safiah is an active member of the university and holds various administrative positions and is responsible for numerous voluntary activities that involve teaching the Quran to the youth and the underprivileged.

The first part of this article is written by Safiah Al Otain and the second part by her sister Fatma Al Otain.

The world was devastated at the end of 2019 by a dangerous disease born in the East, that spread like the wind in all countries and regions; the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). The old and young were affected, rich and poor; all populations were concerned; it made no distinction between religions or cultures: The North, the West of the Earth, its South and East. The whole world became like a small village drowned by the flood that tore its outskirts!

Countries raced with all their gear and equipment to protect their people from this disease, first among them is my dear homeland, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the country's preventive precautionary measures for citizens' safety have multiplied, and reactions have varied. Through this article, this pandemic's impact on women's emotional life on their relationship with The Lord, husband, children, parents, siblings, and co-workers in light of distance education and remote work will be illustrated. This paper is a general description of my state under the pandemic. May Allah relieve the nation.

Three Months Equal Four Seasons!

After the World Health Organization declared the virus as a global pandemic, the Saudi Ministry of Interior issued a series of decisions on Monday, March 16 2020, regarding its efforts to control Covid-19 to protect its citizens' and residents' health. These decisions included suspending attendance at work headquarters in all government departments, except health, security, military sectors. The education sector was transferred online, and the private sector had to comply with all the preventive precautions and promote teleworking. Moreover, markets, restaurants, and commercial complexes were closed except for essential shops that included food supplies and pharmacies. Then, on Tuesday, March 17th, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars issued a decision that prevented people from attending mosques and only allowed them to open to raise the call to prayer with the exception of the two holy mosques (Al Masjid Al Haram and Al-Masjid an-Nabawī).

Here the features of life began to change without introduction, by force, not by choice and suddenly! As if the sun of the universe was eclipsed, or that our earth wore a mourning garment. A few days went by, and on March 23rd, the curfew was announced to halt the virus's spread. Families spent all their time at home, worked remotely, prayed and ate all their meals together. There were no visits to family, friends, cafes, restaurants, or chalets. Initially, it was difficult for everyone because men did not enjoy spending all day at home. Women felt an increased responsibility for having their husbands’ around more than usual because it meant we had less time for ourselves and work. Instead of working separately, my husband and I worked together, which resulted in a lot of distractions. I also spent more time cooking as I needed to prepare all three meals and snacks. However, everyone considered “quarantine” as a new way of life, requiring them to leave behind many habits.

My personal experience during the quarantine at home

At first, I felt a lot of responsibility, as if the day's hours had extended to forty-eight! The nature of my work is academic and I work in the administrative field at the university. I used to spend long hours in the library between papers and my laptop. When the lockdown occurred, I could not easily abandon my habits, which caused considerable tension in my family life. I would sit in front of my laptop fora long time, which annoyed my husband as if it was the first time he saw me like this!

I felt a lot of pressure as if I were between the hammer and the anvil; I was between the hammer of remote working and the anvil of following my children in their distance education. My husband and our children found they had a lot of spare time, which they had not experienced before. Things were new, crucial decisions were being made and the future was unknown.

The online courses were expected to be perfect. University emails did not stop, from urgent executive plans to continue the educational process to new procedures for final tests and students' fear and anxiety who were not used to the situation. Emails were no longer limited to working hours and days as before. We were receiving emails in the morning, in the evening, and even on weekends.

The situation was not likely to stop immediately, and we needed to work hard to contain situations and manage crises. Mothers played the most significant role in the education of their children. The children did not like to sit long in front of the screen to receive their lessons and got easily distracted by anything around them. Also, children's constant noise, their continuous grumbling about being home, and their desire to go out because of boredom were exhausting. There were no restaurants, parks, amusement parks and no playing with neighbors or visiting relatives.

I tried so hard to create an intimate family atmosphere in this difficult manic time. I decided to sit in the living room with my laptop, my children and my books. I would share many of my concerns relating to my work stress, training courses, and research with my husband. We were spending more time with the children than before. We were switching between their academic problems, motivating them to read and browse, and between playing games, electronic devices, cooking, drawing, and sports like indoor football.

I shared with my colleagues my concerns regarding work, family and children. We exchanged ideas and activities for our families in our evening chats. One of them told me about her research achievements, as she completed two research papers in two months! Another colleague told me about the competitions she created to educate her family, while the other started an electronic store selling dolls and face masks. Everyone tried to make the best out of this time. Technology was used for everything: education, obtaining medical prescriptions, and buying goods.

We spent hours between hope and faith. On Friday, April 24th 2020, the holy month of Ramadan came. Ramadan was not like any other year! We did not hear the hymns of the verses from our Mosque. Their lamps did not glow in the sanctum and I did not seclude myself for hours of worship. I did not make breakfasts for the international students living on campus. I did not see crowds around the Kaaba behind the screens. My feet did not touch the Kaaba grounds for so long, nor did I go to our prophet’s Mosque. Men became the imams in their homes, followed by their wives and children. They recited and prayed; tranquility prevailed.

One of the most painful things during the “quarantine” time was my inability to visit my father and relatives; the fear for the elderly was overwhelming and the sympathy I have for him grew. Being away from my father and siblings was like bitter medicine that I took every day and I could hardly handle it. FaceTime calls and other audio or video applications were the only options to calm the plague of nostalgia that devastated our souls.

As the number of patients and deaths increased in the headlines of newspapers every day, a colleague called me to share the sad news that her father was infected with this virus. It was painful that he lived in another city, and between them lay more than 1000 kilometers. The airlines were shut down. Her father was in the hospital and no one could visit him. Her mother was also infected, and she could not see her. After several days in intensive care, he passed away and she was unable to attend the funeral ceremonies: there exists no consolation for this tragedy.

The bad news never stopped with the infection of a friend, beloved one, neighbor, or relative. Many of them survived by Allah's grace, but some died and were recorded among the departed from this life. I have never seen such images and scenes before. My heart is broken with this chain of sad events. I never imagined, for a moment what was happening in front of our eyes. I do not know how the story was woven, but it is Allah's will and wisdom.

Then it was Eid Al-Fitr on Sunday, May 24th. We spent the Happy Eid at our homes with a total curfew. We shared with the family and friends the joy of the Eid remotely. It was a different Eid in everything. Eid prayers at home! Everything was hand-made by us, like cakes, gifts, and sweets. There were no beauty salons, no barber centers, nor visits to the markets on Eid night.

We often thought about our relatives abroad and wondered how they were! How they would be! Would they be able to return to us safely soon! Or would incidents prevent it? It was indeed a stressful period, but my belief in Allah's wisdom helped me get through this difficult time. As a believer, I am aware that everything happens for a reason and that “Indeed, the patient will be given their reward without account.” [Quran, Az-Zumar: 10]. I also spent more time praying, which has always been a source of strength and serenity for me.

Oh, Allah help us!

I kept my sister Fatma in my prayers, whom I will let to weave her experience into words.

As a Middle Eastern woman, a mom with two children who studies and lives in England, I experienced mixed feelings of fear, worry, and confusion due to the precautionary measures that were put in place to confront the expansion of the new Coronavirus. The media also played a role in making me feel confused as some outlets were downplaying it as a simple flu while countries were going into lockdown and borders were closing. Images of the bodies in the epicenters of the virus were distressing.

The closure of the university, schools, and shops had a significant impact on my mental health. My full attention shifted to being cautious and keeping my family safe. Although this caution resulted in deep isolation, as reality's constraints are sometimes challenging to accept, it was necessary. As schools and the university shut, the daily life scene became repetitive, not without boredom and a feeling of emptiness.

In this uncertain and strange situation, I found myself fluctuating between the desire to return to times that have past and were not appreciated and a counter desire to jump forward to a new time where this pandemic will become a memory. It made me realize how much I appreciated trips to pick up my kids from school and listening to them eagerly telling me about their day. I missed my brief daily encounters with my friends and colleagues in which we exchanged news and reassured each other that we could get through the Ph.D. journey. Those in-person encounters really helped in times of doubt, especially as I was away from my family. Yet, I only realized the value of what we had once they were no longer available.

It was harder to work from home as I was frequently interrupted and it was hard to organize my time. My children, who were used to packed days as they were enrolled in various after-school activities, found the spare time stuck at home hard to cope with. It made them miss their father who was staying in Saudi Arabia, more. However, there were, honestly, some wonderful moments that I spent with my children. We baked, cooked, danced, and played together.

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia issued a full lockdown and restricted travel, my fear and worry amplified. I received constant calls from my family asking me to come back and the situation in England was getting worse. I registered for a repatriation flight to go back home, but the list was long, and my children and I lived in anxiety. “What if” occupied my mind. What if I got sick? What would happen to my children if something went wrong with me? No one would take them if their mother were infected. What if something happened to my family back home? It was tough to think about it.

We were overjoyed on May 19th when we were finally allowed to return home even though we were put in mandatory quarantine for two weeks. It was nice to spend time at a hotel with the assurance that we were safe and at home; room service also helped. We found it quite upsetting that we could not spend Eid Al-Fitr with our family, especially since it was the first Eid in 5 years back home. We still dressed up and facetimed our family. Waiting for Coronavirus test results was the worst feeling as we desperately wanted to be reunited with our family.

We were thrilled the night we were informed that our tests were negative and we could finally go back home. I was happy to be reunited with my husband and all my children after being apart for so long.

Life, as we knew it back home, was different.

On Sunday, May 31st, people returned to work gradually and prayed again in our mosques with preventive precautionary measures, neither hugging nor handshaking. We were committed to social distancing and wearing face masks. Life started to light up day after day. Private marriage parties were held; many families were leaving behind the traditions of overspending and waste. People traveled to different regions inside the country to visit their family and went on holiday. Although, the pandemic remained like a hurricane and Mecca remained as if it was under a siege as we were not permitted to enter it.

We hope that this plague will be gone from the world and peace will prevail as humanity returns. We have taken lessons from this tragedy and learned a lot from this catastrophe. Corona taught us: That human beings, with their intelligence, strength, and inventions, are weak in front of God’s will and power and that we should put our trust in God and not only rely on ourselves. That there are many places that we have decided to visit and work planned to complete but have not been able to achieve anything due to the pandemic as God's will governs everything. Corona made us resort to supplication a lot to achieve our dreams, as who other than God can fulfill wishes. Corona taught us that successful people are always those who put in place alternative plans. As sometimes, one may be unable to complete one's original plan due to unexpected circumstances. Corona taught us that successful people continue their path and creativity and persevere to reach their goals even if these difficulties around them intensify and circumstances clamp down on them. Patience and persistence are some of the secrets of success, and only wise souls can maintain it. We learned how to use many e-learning platforms and modern technology programs. Took part in many courses that we were not able to enter earlier due to logistic restrictions. We developed ourselves a lot in the technical field, in the performance of work, in educational platforms, and communication.

Thanks to Allah, first and foremost, for all the benefits we gained from this pandemic.