COVID-19 Around the World

Isha in Qatar

Stories about COVID-19 from different corners of the world

The country is at a standstill. The streets are filled with deafening silence.

At a time of worship, togetherness and festivity, we are faced with the threat of a fatal infectious disease. For the population of Qatar, and for many who practice Islam around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow over the holy month of Ramadan.

In the pre-COVID era, these mornings would be filled with fasting and reflection, giving way to evenings bubbling with laughter, music and scrumptious feasts. Alas, in accordance with social distancing measures, the gatherings, mosque prayers and festivities have been cancelled.

Doha, Qatar: once a bustling city, now eerily quiet as majority of the population seeks safety indoors.

Empty restaurants in Souq Waqif, a market area in Doha that was once vibrant with activity.

Following the nation-wide institution of social distancing measures in mid-March, a considerable portion of the population remains indoors. For those of us privileged to work from home, Zoom has become the new way of life. With universities and schools on hold, students like myself are largely taking courses online. Exams are administered on virtual platforms, with proctors doing their best to “inspect” examinees through the cameras on their computers. These new modes of education have certainly offered an inventive solution to the disruption of our courses – at least for those of us who can afford technology. However, a screen can only be so engaging: student motivation, involvement and performance have reportedly seen a steady fall.

Although I am a medical student entering my final year of university, I have not been called out to assist at the frontlines yet. The situation here is not quite as dire as it is in the United States, or was in Italy and China. In fact, my clinical education at the hospital was abruptly discontinued, for the sake of my safety. Due to the travel restrictions in place, my rotations scheduled in New York this summer were cancelled. A cloud of obscurity surrounds my future as an international medical graduate applying for residency in the United States. Yet, I count my blessings: the wellbeing of my family, the time to work on myself, and the privilege to stay safe amidst a global crisis.

The healthcare workers on the frontlines are not quite as fortunate. For those fasting in Ramadan, the days are long and arduous. Life at the hospital is a race against the clock. Working under layers of personal protective equipment, they must fight through feelings of thirst and exhaustion. Now, for breaking their fasts at dusk – a joyful ritual that is usually performed with family – the two-minute interval between patients has to suffice.

Qatar’s response to the pandemic has been praiseworthy in many ways. In late February, the first few COVID-19 cases were identified – a couple of passengers from Iran. Subsequently, the number of cases rapidly spiked into the two-hundreds, reportedly stemming from three expatriate workers living in close accommodations. Nonetheless, within the week, Qatar rapidly took serious measures to curb the spread of the virus.

A travel ban was placed on visitors from fifteen countries. Schools and universities were closed until further notice. Public transportation services, including metros and buses, were suspended. Restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas and food outlets were shut down in most places across the country. More recently, laws were put in place to oblige all citizens to wear masks upon leaving the house, with a penalty of imprisonment and a fine of up to QR 200,000 (USD 54,930) for disobeying these rules.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) established a campaign to educate the public about COVID-19. A hotline was instituted for those in need of professional advice, assistance and mental health services. Accommodations for a 14-day quarantine were provided for those entering the country. Drive-thru testing services for COVID-19 were implemented. Daily statistics about new cases and mortalities were transparently made available to the public. Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment were ensured for essential workers. Moreover, Qatar served a pivotal role in providing medical supplies and aid to over 20 countries fighting COVID-19 – among them, the current epicenter of the globe – New York city.

Despite these pragmatic and seemingly triumphant measures, the cases in Qatar are at a steady rise. While the number of cases (33,969) appears mild in comparison to the rest of the world, this is a disconcerting figure for the small population of this country – a mere 2.8 million. Today, this small country has the second highest rate of infection per capita in the world – a staggering 1,221 cases per 100,000. It seems that we are quickly approaching our peak.

A Qatari national gets tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing centre.

These numbers are heavily attributable to the large population of blue-collar workers living in close quarters in the impoverished Industrial area of Doha – the capital of this small gulf state. While white-collar workers have the option to stay safe in the comfort of their homes, these migrant laborers continue to toil away at construction sites, working under the scorching sun with tight masks strapped to their faces. Although online campaigns, guidelines on protection and hotline services may have been made available to the general public, these resources are not so easily accessible for the impoverished masses. Moreover, with the Industrial Area on lockdown for the last two months, thousands of workers are confined in this congested district of labor camps, putting their safety and quality of life in peril.

Migrant workers pause to have a meal in the middle of an exhausting, hot day. Blue collar workers make up about 60% of the population of Doha.

Besides the threat of infection, these migrant workers are faced with the devastating impact of unemployment. The suspension of major sectors through the country has caused a large percentage of blue-collar workers to be without a job since mid-March. Although provisions for food and basic supplies are sometimes promised by employers, these promises are difficult to fulfill. In an interview with The Guardian, a worker stated, “I’m not afraid of corona. The problem is [that] there isn’t any work.” Living in such destitute conditions, workers are compelled to plead for food from their employers and from local charities.

The country is now aptly working on addressing this portion of the workforce, a critical demographic of the population. For now, the country keenly waits for the situation to improve. We count our blessings. We live on, day by day, in the hopes that we will eventually enjoy togetherness in a COVID-free world. We pray for those less fortunate than us – the healthcare workers, the migrant laborers, the security guards, the grocery clerks and delivery men – who face the risk of infection every day.

Isha, Qatar

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