In Saudi's Qatif region, residents adapt to coronavirus lockdown

DUBAI (Reuters) - Worshippers went online to listen to sermons. Families stocked up on groceries. And shoppers rushed to buy up hand sanitizers and masks.

A couple wear a protective face mask, as they walk, after Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on the province of Qatif, following the spread of coronavirus, in Qatif, Saudi Arabia March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

For the most part, though, residents in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif region are adapting to new restrictions after the oil-producing area was sealed off from the rest of the kingdom on Sunday to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Vigilance against the infection appears high. Like others in the eastern region on the Gulf coast, Abu Ali and his family watched a religious sermon on their mobiles instead of gathering with other worshippers.

Husseiniyas -- Shi’ite Muslim religious gathering places -- were empty on Monday when Qatif’s large Shi’ite community commemorated the death of Sayida Zaynab, daughter of Imam Ali, considered the father of Shi’ite Islam.

Religious leaders broadcast sermons on the Internet.

“Everybody was on their phones watching Youtube channels,” Abu Ali told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday.

Authorities locked down Qatif on Sunday, placing cement blocks and checkpoints to prevent movement in and out of the region while ensuring trade flows continued.

Authorities have said the lockdown was temporary, to contain the infection. Most of the kingdom’s 20 cases have involved people who had been in either Iran or Iraq or met individuals who had visited those countries, home to Shi’ite holy sites.

They said several people had not disclosed their visits to the Islamic Republic upon returning to the kingdom, which has long banned its citizens from traveling to arch-foe Iran.

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In several towns of the region, streets and markets were still bustling. One vendor gutting fish wore a face mask, while his colleague did not. Fisherman went about their business.

“Things are normal in Qatif,” a 59-year-old man who identified himself as Abu Hussein said, adding that his daughter continued her medical studies remotely like many students throughout the kingdom where schools have been closed.

“The only thing is that masks and sanitizers have disappeared from pharmacies,” he said.

Work at government and private entities was suspended with the exception of essential activities, such as medical and security services and petrol stations.

As the lockdown began, there was a rush to grocery shops by residents that went on until midnight. One said he had stocked up on meat, vegetables, bread and water.

“On day one, people were a bit anxious. But since then everything is back to normal ... People understand and accept the situation,” Abu Ali said.

But some residents are worried about businesses outside the zone which sits next to swathes of agricultural land.

Jassem al-Jabroudi said he cannot visit his farm which lies 65 km (40 miles) outside the lockdown area and where he raises chickens, sheep and camels and grows onions and beans.

“I have seven workers on the farm entrusted to my care and I cannot go see them,” he said. “How will I get my livelihood?”

Qatif has historically been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated government and minority Shi’ites who have complained of discrimination and marginalization, charges the government denies.

Some Qatif residents found a silver lining in the closures.

“We needed more time to spend with our families,” said a 30-year old woman, who asked not to be named.

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Ghaida Ghantous and Lisa Barrington, Editing by William Maclean