By B Izzak and Agencies

KUWAIT: The ministry of health reported 78 new coronavirus cases yesterday, raising the total number to 743 cases and one death. Of the new cases, 77 are expats, 59 of whom are Indians and the rest belonging to several nationalities. Of the 637 cases receiving treatment, 23 are in intensive care, six in critical condition. The ministry said two cases had recovered, one a 72-year-old Kuwaiti man and the other a two-year-old expat boy, raising the total number of recoveries to 105.

MP Omar Al-Tabtabaei said yesterday that he and a group of lawmakers have submitted a draft law to increase penalties on “traffickers in persons” in order to fight visa traders in the country, blamed for recruiting thousands of expat workers for money. The lawmaker said the main idea of the legislation is to upgrade the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony, which is accompanied by proposing tougher punishments.

Tabtabaei said expatriate laborers are not to blame for this grave violation, because they were recruited to the country and abandoned without jobs in exchange of illegal fees, which are taken every year. He said MPs had in the past submitted scores of proposals to rectify the imbalance in the demographic structure, which is tilted in favor of expatriates who make up some 70 percent of the country’s nearly five million people.

The lawmaker said that it is unacceptable that the number of expats reaches this high level because they overburden services and food commodities in the country, especially at times of crises. He said Kuwait is committed by its constitution to offer all services to its citizens as well as residents, but this is an appropriate time to resolve this decades-old problem. Tabtabaei called on the government and the Assembly to swiftly debate and approve the legislation so as to start implementing it soon.

Meanwhile, authorities surrounded Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula, which were placed under lockdown yesterday to prevent a steep rise of coronavirus cases among expat workers. Hundreds of thousands of low-paid expats live in the two areas. Al-Qabas daily quoted official sources as saying the army was assigned to cordon off Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, home to the largest concentration of Asian expats, while the police and National Guard are guarding Mahboula.

The government also extended a public holiday by two weeks until April 26 as precautionary measures against the coronavirus. It also extended the partial curfew by two hours in the morning to run from 5 pm until 6 am until further notice. The interior minister urged people to stay indoors even during non-curfew hours. “The decision to isolate (the two area areas) is in order to test everyone in there and treat them so it does not impact other areas,” KUNA reported the interior minister as saying.

The manpower authority said yesterday a number of companies had shifted their workers from Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula to new buildings in Jahra. Head of the authority Ahmad Al-Mousa said the authority will take immediate action against these companies by disconnecting power from the buildings, besides taking other measures. He said the authority has obliged companies to provide essential medical items like masks, gloves and disinfectants to buildings housing 250 workers and more.

Saudi Arabia placed its capital Riyadh and other big cities under a 24-hour curfew on Monday, locking down much of the population as the largest Gulf Arab country expanded efforts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. The new curfew applies to the cities of Riyadh, Tabuk, Dammam, Dahran, Hofuf, and the provinces of Jeddah, Taif, Qatif and Khobar, a statement from the interior ministry said.

Entry to or exit from those areas will not be allowed, except for vital workers. Residents are allowed to leave their homes for medical or food needs inside their residential area and between 6 am and 3 pm only. Saudi Arabia reported four more deaths from the virus on Monday, bringing the total death toll there to 38. The government on Thursday imposed a 24-hour curfew in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Saudi’s eastern oil-producing province of Qatif, where the kingdom’s first coronavirus cases were reported among Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran, has been on lockdown for four weeks.

Countries of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have recorded almost 8,000 cases of infection and 60 deaths. The United Arab Emirates reported 277 new coronavirus cases, its biggest daily jump, and one new death. Dubai has also sealed off a densely populated neighborhood where many blue-collar workers live. In total, the UAE has recorded 2,076 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths. A ministry of health spokeswoman said the rise in case numbers in recent days was due to increased numbers of tests being carried out.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have called on the energy-rich Gulf states to release peaceful political activists from jail and scale back detention of migrant workers, to limit the spread of coronavirus. Hundreds of human rights defenders, peaceful activists and opposition members have been in jail for years in the six GCC states. The region, which takes in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, also detains thousands of expatriate workers for violating strict residency regulations.

“As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Gulf states should take prompt measures to protect the health and rights of detainees and staff in immigration detention centers, including by releasing people and finding alternatives to detention,” Human Rights Watch said yesterday. “Many migrant workers in the Gulf, especially those who are undocumented through no fault of their own or have fled unscrupulous employers, are in prolonged pre-deportation detention in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions,” said its deputy Middle East director Michael Page.

Almost half of the GCC population of 52 million are expatriates, hailing mostly from South Asia, the Philippines or within the Arab world. As the pandemic spreads, Gulf states have adopted draconian measures. Saudi Arabia has imposed a 24-hour curfew on most of the country. Dubai too has rolled out a round-the-clock curfew while Kuwait has announced a lockdown on two areas densely populated with expats.

Some 8,400 coronavirus cases and 60 deaths have been reported in the GCC states. A majority of the cases in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among foreigners. On April 1, Kuwait offered expat workers living illegally in the country a one-month amnesty to leave, with a free air ticket and without paying delay fines. Some 150,000 people are expected to benefit from the offer.

HRW said people in immigration detention in Gulf states pending deportation should be given non-custodial alternatives due to the health risks and global travel restrictions. The New York-based watchdog also urged Gulf governments to consider extending visas to ensure that expats retain their legal residency at a time when they cannot travel home freely. Overcrowding is a serious and recurring problem in many of the Gulf states’ prisons and detention centers, it said.

A group of 20 human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and HRW, have urged Bahrain to immediately release peaceful activists still behind bars. Last month, Bahrain freed 901 prisoners on “humanitarian grounds” and 585 others were given non-custodial sentences. The groups called for the release of opposition leaders, activists and journalists who remain behind bars.

HRW has also called on UAE authorities to “unconditionally release people detained unlawfully, including those detained for peaceful dissent.” Amnesty International and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights highlighted the plight of Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist who has been held in solitary confinement for three years.