Nepalis in Qatar live in overcrowded and squalid conditions even during pandemicIn the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Qatar imposed a harsh lockdown on camps where migrant workers live in close quarters with inadequate amenities.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Raja has now been under lockdown at his camp for nearly 15 days. The migrants’ camp he lives in at Salwa Road, Doha, is home to nearly 16,000 others, including 5,000 Nepali migrant workers. He shares his room and bathroom with four other Nepalis. His kitchen is also used by 48 others from different countries.
The Arab country imposed a general lockdown two weeks ago after Covid-19 cases were reported in the country. But for workers like Raja, life goes on.
“We are still going to work. An office vehicle picks us up and drops us off at the worksite,” Raja, who asked that he only be identified by his first name, told the Post from Doha over the phone. “Everyone is working in fear as cases of Covid-19 are increasing every day.”
Most of the country’s 481 confirmed cases were reported in its industrial area, a commercial hub outside Doha where many migrant workers such as Raja live. The country’s labour force largely comprises workers from South Asian countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh.
After cases of Covid-19 started popping up in the industrial area and the camps, Qatar sealed off the workers’ camps to contain the spread of Covid-19, linked to poor living conditions. Qatar’s desperate attempts to control the spread of the contagious disease have resulted in converting the camps into “coronavirus prisons”.
According to The Guardian, security personnel guard a huge zone within the industrial area, where thousands of workers are trapped in squalid, overcrowded camps.
According to Raja, workers are afraid of going out of the camp, even when they run out of daily essentials as they could be deported if they are caught. Last week, over 300 Nepalis were deported for leaving their camps.
When we run out of daily supplies, we have no option but to go out as there are no shops inside the camp,” said Raja. “We used to have small markets where workers like us could buy groceries at cheaper rates. Now, they too are closed.”
According to Amnesty International, the lockdown on labour camps put migrant workers at a grave risk of infection.
In a statement, Amnesty International called on Qatar and other Gulf countries to ensure that migrant workers are not further marginalised during this crisis, and that they can access sick pay when they are unable to work because of the COVID-19 epidemic.
But the situation in the labour camps indicates that the call hasn’t been heeded. “Labour accommodation camps are notoriously overcrowded, and lack adequate water and sanitation meaning that workers are inevitably less able to protect themselves from the virus,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues in a statement. “Workers’ proximity to one another in cramped camps also does not allow for any type of social distancing.”
Qatar has long been criticised for its treatment of migrant workers, who live in small, crowded rooms that lack basic facilities such as running water. A large number of workers share toilets.
Raja’s four Nepali roommates are not infected but he doesn’t feel safe.
“None of my friends has been infected so far,” said Raja. “But we also know that coronavirus spreads through personal contacts, which means everyone is at risk. You never know.”
Qatar, with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Arab Gulf region, however, has vowed to protect all residents, including its millions of expatriates. In a statement on Saturday, the government said it was working closely with employers in the country to "ensure the welfare and medical needs of the residents are met".
“The Qatari government must ensure that human rights remain central to all attempts at prevention and containment of the COVID-19 virus, and also that all people have access to health care, including preventive care and treatment for everyone affected, without discrimination,” said Cockburn.
Amidst all the fear and confusion, Raja just wants to come home. His income is limited to basic salary whereas his life is now confined to the camps. But even if he manages to leave the camp, travel restrictions imposed by the Nepal government do not allow him to return home until April 15.
“I want to come home, so do most Nepalis in my camp,” he said. “No one wants to live under constant fear and scarcity locked up inside camps.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.