By Reem Al-Gharabally
KUWAIT: Kuwait isolated Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula nearly a month ago. The two densely-populated areas predominantly inhabited by low income, foreign workers are now barricaded behind barbwire and checkpoints. No one is allowed to leave the area without a permit. Originally announced as a two-week isolation, it has now been extended “until further notice.”
Authorities say the effort aims to curb the spread of COVID-19 after clusters were discovered there. Despite the isolation, Kuwait’s COVID-19 numbers have continued to spike, along with the growing desperation of Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula residents.
A recent visit to Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh exposed the lack of safety measures: no social distancing and long queues outside the health clinic, pharmacies and supermarkets. The informal outdoor market was open and crowded. Unemployed men sit around in groups outside their buildings. With many people living in dormitory accommodation, social distancing is impossible. The lockdown has forced people to remain in overcrowded conditions for longer periods.
Residents of Jleeb Al-Shuyokh and Mahboula speak of growing hardship. Unable to work, many struggle to afford basic necessities, food, rent, sending money back home or paying off loans. Savings have quickly depleted as the lockdown is extended. “We can’t survive like this!” says Hussein, a 33-year long-term resident of Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh. “It has been two weeks. Then it will be a month. But after that, what? We are helpless.”
Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, with a population of more than 300,000, has been the forgotten corner of Kuwait for decades. Dilapidated buildings, damaged roads and an overburdened sewage system originally built for a population a third of its current size characterize the area. The authorities are aware of these problems and have come under scrutiny by local media.
Under lockdown, donation food trucks are sent to the area to provide a lifeline for residents. Long queues to receive donations make social distancing impossible. Signs of social unrest are already showing. In Mahboula, a food truck was mobbed last week causing authorities to re-think food distribution strategies.
“There needs to be consistent communication in languages that migrants understand to avoid unnecessary panic, as well as organized provision of food and basics. According to people we’ve spoken to in these neighborhoods, this isn’t happening yet,” says a spokesperson for Migrant Rights, a GCC-based advocacy organization.
For the thousands of daily wage migrants in Kuwait, there has been no support. The only way out is the recently announced government amnesty to allow workers who have overstayed their visas to leave the country with a plane ticket provided and visa violation fines waived. Those with valid visas but no work are not included in the amnesty.
Still thousands rushed to accept the amnesty terms. During a recent visit to Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, men wheeled heavy suitcases down the main street, waiting for buses to take them to the amnesty center. (The last day for the amnesty was April 30). Once they reach the facility, some reportedly got stranded because the facility was struggling to deal with the numbers of people turning up. Even though the amnesty offered a way out, thousands are returning to their countries with crushed dreams and financial debt.
Expatriates who still have a job, continue to provide essential services to Kuwait during the lockdown. Kuwait’s street cleaners, couriers, supermarket workers, nurses, lab technicians, doctors, pharmacists, delivery drivers, journalists, teachers, accountants, dentists and other professionals and laborers continue to work.
The large illegal populations have fuelled a debate among the citizenry regarding visa traders, the demographic imbalance (there are more than 3 million expats and 1.5 million Kuwaitis in the country). Some leading politicians and public figures have used the high number of infections amongst guest workers to push anti-expatriate agendas and make xenophobic comments.
“These residents in overcrowded accommodation are victims of the illegal practices of their employers. How can we blame them for that? It’s their employers who need to face charges and accept the costs of providing decent accommodation before they get infected,” argued human rights lawyer Atyab Alshatti.
COVID-19 did not create the conditions in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula, it is just exacerbating the existing problems. Is prolonging the economic hardship caused by the mass detention of the impoverished communities in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula actually helping to curb the pandemic here, or is just causing a humanitarian crisis on a large scale? “On television it seems everything is perfect. It is not,” explains Alshatti. “The government has to provide these people with more medical facilities, more services and more shelter to keep them safe.”