By B Izzak
KUWAIT: The Council of Ministers yesterday reviewed a plan to rectify an imbalance in the population structure where expats form an overwhelming majority and asked a specialized panel to continue its work. The plan and recommendations were presented by the higher committee for dealing with the distortion in the population structure, which was asked by the Cabinet to continue with procedures and steps to implement recommendations on this issue.
The Cabinet statement provided no details on the nature of the recommendations or the conclusions of the higher committee, but it asked the higher committee to coordinate with various state bodies “to resolve the existing situation in order to achieve the required goals”. At present, expats form some 70 percent of the country’s population (3.35 million), while Kuwaitis number just 1.45 million or 30 percent of the population.
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the difficulty of handling large numbers of expatriates, a majority of them low-paid Arab and Asian laborers who are living under dire and unhealthy conditions that were cited as the main reason for the spread of the deadly disease among foreigners. The government has started a clampdown on visa traders and arrested dozens of Kuwaitis and their expat assistants, and several cases are being investigated by the public prosecution.
MPs in the past few days have submitted bills calling to stop appointing expats in government jobs and to terminate the services of some 100,000 expat employees in government agencies within a year. Minister of State for Municipality Affairs Waleed Al-Jassem has issued a decision halting all expat appointments in the Municipality and calling to terminate the services of expats already employed there.
In its meeting, the Council of Ministers also decided to double the amount of the so-called labor support which the government pays to all citizens who opt for private sector jobs. The Cabinet also said the government will pay any reduction in the salaries of Kuwaitis in the private sector. MP Abdullah Al-Kandari criticized the decision, saying it effectively allows private sector employers to cut salaries of their staff.
Head of the manpower resources committee MP Khalil Al-Saleh called on the Assembly yesterday to give priority to approving a draft law that calls to impose up to a five percent tax on the remittances of expatriates. Saleh said the bill had been approved by the financial and economic affairs committee and has been waiting for its turn on the agenda of the National Assembly. He said the bill is important since it provides another source of income for the budget, as expat remittances have exceeded KD 4.2 billion. A number of MPs have been pressing to approve the bill despite a warning by the Central Bank and the finance ministry that the bill is counterproductive and will encourage a black market.
Meanwhile, the ministry of awqaf said Monday that Eid al-Fitr prayers are preferably to be performed in their format at home instead of mosques due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ministry surveyed by phone the opinions of several Muslim scholars who agreed that the audible prayers consisting of two rakats can be performed at home without the post-prayer sermon, according to a statement by the ministry’s fatwa (religious opinion) department.
In the first rakat, a worshipper has to utter six “takbirs” (Allahu Akbar) after the “takbiratul ihram” (the opening part of the prayers) and then start reciting surah Al-Fatiha. In the second rakat, there should be five takbirs after the standing up takbir and then surah Al-Fatiha should be recited, the statement explained. A worshipper can perform the prayers alone or along with his family members, it added.
The United Arab Emirates will extend a nightly curfew by two hours from this week after reporting an increase in daily cases of the coronavirus, an official said on Monday. Separately, the country, which had suspended entry of non-Emirati residents on March 19, said it would next month start receiving those with valid residencies stranded abroad whose families are in the UAE, state media reported.
The nationwide curfew, which currently runs from 10 pm to 6 am, would start at 8 pm on Wednesday until further notice, Saif Al Dhaheri, spokesman for the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority, told a news conference. The UAE on Monday reported 832 infections and four deaths from the virus to take its count to 24,190 with 224 deaths.
The country halted regular passenger flights and closed most public venues to combat the disease but like other Gulf Arab states saw the virus spread among low-income migrant workers living in overcrowded quarters, leading to an increase in testing. Authorities have arranged repatriation flights for citizens and a limited number of residents and to evacuate foreigners. The state news agency said residents with relatives in the UAE could start returning as of June 1 to reunite with family.
Dhaheri urged those celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan to avoid family gatherings. He said malls could operate from 9 am to 7 pm during Eid with shoppers allowed to be there for a maximum of two hours. Another official detailed an updated list of penalties for violation of containment measures, including a fine of 50,000 dirhams ($13,000) for not heeding quarantine orders and 3,000 dirhams for not wearing a face mask or practicing physical distancing in public, or breaking curfew. The official said the public prosecutor would impose penalties of up to six months in prison or a fine of no less than 100,000 dirhams for repeat offenders.
Qatar tightened restrictions on commercial activities on Monday, ordering all shops to close until the end of the month as part of measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The decision taken at a cabinet meeting exempts pharmacies, food supply stores and food deliveries. Malls and dine-in restaurants were already closed but other stores had still been operating.
The country of some 2.8 million on Monday reported 1,364 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total to 33,969, the second highest infection count after larger neighbor Saudi Arabia among six Gulf Arab states. Its death toll from the virus stands at 15. Qatar, where expatriates make up the majority of the population, has like other Gulf states seen the virus spread among low-wage foreign workers living in cramped quarters.
Other measures approved by the cabinet include requiring all citizens and residents to install a mobile app designed to track COVID-19 cases starting May 22, state news agency QNA reported. No more than two people can be in a car and up to three in a chauffeured vehicle, while buses must operate at half capacity. People can exercise in public near their residence if they practice physical distancing and wear face masks, QNA said. Masks have been mandatory in public places in Qatar since Sunday in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Qatar also confirmed 12 cases of COVID-19 at a jail yesterday as campaign group Human Rights Watch warned other prisoners could be at risk of contracting the disease. Two inmates were acutely ill but none had succumbed to the respiratory condition, the Government Communications Office said in a statement which denied there was a widespread outbreak among prisoners.
Human Rights Watch had said in a statement that six non-Qatari detainees “described a deterioration in prison conditions” at Doha’s Central Prison. “They said that the prison authorities also further restricted prisoners’ limited access to basic medical care,” it added describing the situation as “an apparent outbreak”. The campaign group has previously warned that cramped, unsanitary conditions in prisons worldwide and in worker accommodation in the Gulf make social distancing impossible and could accelerate the spread of the new coronavirus.
The government said the HRW report was “based on unfounded rumors and speculation from a small number of unverified interviews”. “(The) 12 patients were transferred immediately to a secure, purpose-built medical facility… where they have received, or continue to receive, first-class medical treatment,” the communications office said. “Two cases reached the acute phase of the illness and were transferred to a designated off-site treatment center where they received first-class healthcare before being transferred back to the Central Prison once fully recovered.”
By B Izzak