BEIJING: An official in a hazmat suit waits inside a high school as a student arrives yesterday. – AFP

By B Izzak and Agencies

KUWAIT/BEIJING: A number of countries will start “very soon” to repatriate thousands of their nationals stranded in Kuwait who benefited from an amnesty offered by the government to illegal expats, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah said yesterday. The workers have been living in temporary shelters set up by the authorities for the past few weeks after they registered with the interior ministry in order to leave the country, but their home nations were not ready to receive them.

“There are positive signs that these countries will repatriate their workers. I think that these workers will leave for their home countries very shortly,” Jarallah told a local television channel. He however did not name any country nor did he provide any timeframe for the repatriation. The main countries include Egypt, India and Sri Lanka, who told Kuwait they are not in a position to receive thousands of their nationals because of the coronavirus shutdowns.

Jarallah said the foreign ministry had been in constant contact with those countries and their embassies in Kuwait, and they initially said they needed more time to repatriate their workers. “But as a result of continuous pressure from our side, they announced they will repatriate them…We are hopeful that through coordination and agreement these workers will be repatriated to their countries,” Jarallah said.

The interior ministry has announced a one-month amnesty starting April 1 for an estimated 160,000 expat workers living illegally in the country, but the response has been tepid. Although no official figures have been released and with only four days left of the amnesty, only under 50,000 expats have benefited from the offer, under which no fines will be taken and airfare will be paid by the government.

MP Mohammad Al-Dallal asked the foreign minister about plans to repatriate illegal Indians, Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos, the largest foreign communities in Kuwait. He demanded dates of the repatriation and expected numbers of those who could leave. The lawmaker also asked for measures taken by the ministry against foreign countries who refused to take their nationals, although the same countries have repatriated large numbers of their nationals from several other countries while excluding Kuwait.

Dallal also demanded a list of aid Kuwait had presented to Egypt, India, the Philippines and Bangladesh since 1990. Local media reported yesterday that Sri Lanka has asked Kuwait to delay the repatriation of its nationals living illegally until May 30.

Rapporteur of the National Assembly’s health and labor committee MP Saadoun Hammad said yesterday the panel is ready to complete legislation on the population structure and visa traders within days after receiving the draft laws. He expected that such issues could be finalized at a meeting of the Assembly’s office and officials of various parliamentary committees due to take place yesterday. The meeting is expected to decide which issues have the priority to be debated in the Assembly if a session is held.

The public prosecution meanwhile is reportedly investigating around 10 cases involving visa traders, and that dozens of people are detained and being interrogated. An interior ministry colonel and around nine of his partners are involved in the first case. A special judge yesterday extended their detention at the Central Jail pending trial.

National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem called on the government and Interior Minister Anas Al-Saleh to reveal the names of any MP who tries to intervene to help visa traders. He said he heard that some people tried to intervene to let visa traders off the hook, affirming that the government must hold visa traders responsible for the problem of marginal labor and refer them to the public prosecution. Visa traders have been involved in human trafficking and bringing people from various countries in exchange for money, granting them a visa or renewing their residency without giving them actual jobs.

Meanwhile, children in China’s two most important cities went back to school yesterday after more than three months at home, as coronavirus restrictions eased and governments around the world began charting a path out of the pandemic lockdown. Europe’s four worst-affected countries all reported marked drops in their daily death tolls, offering hope that the outbreak may have peaked in some places – at least for now.

But leaders and experts remain divided on how quickly to revive shuttered economies while maintaining a delicate balance between freedom and safety. Italy and New York laid out partial reopening plans, with France and Spain to follow suit this week, while tens of thousands of final-year students returned to school in Shanghai and Beijing after months of closures.

“I’m glad, it’s been too long since I’ve seen my classmates,” 18-year-old Hang Huan said in Shanghai. “I’ve missed them a lot.” Students in Beijing must have their temperatures checked at school gates and show “green” health codes on an app that calculates a person’s infection risk, according to the education ministry. Virus numbers in China – where the disease first emerged late last year – have dwindled as the country begins to cautiously lift control measures, although fears remain of a potential resurgence and cases imported from abroad.

Primary schools in Norway also reopened yesterday, along with some businesses in Switzerland, such as hairdressers and florists, while New Zealand prepared to begin its phased exit from lockdown in the evening. “There is no widespread, undetected community transmission in New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared. “We have won that battle.”

In an Oslo suburb, Karine Rabbe brought her seven-year-old daughter Tilde to school in the rain after six weeks of online teaching. “She was ready at six o’clock this morning, three hours early. She was so excited to go back. No alarm clock, we don’t need that,” Rabbe said.

More than 205,000 coronavirus deaths have been confirmed across the globe – over a quarter in the United States. Italy has the second-highest death toll at 26,000, followed by Spain, France and Britain, all at well over 20,000. But on Sunday Britain’s daily tally was the lowest since March 31, while Italy and Spain’s were the lowest in a month. France’s toll was a drop of more than a third on the previous day’s figures.

Those encouraging numbers blew relief through a continent frustrated by restrictions designed to slow the spread of the disease. “We cannot continue beyond this lockdown – we risk damaging the country’s socioeconomic fabric too much,” said Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he unveiled a plan to emerge from Europe’s longest shutdown, in place since early March. People will have to wear masks in public and rigorously observe social distancing measures when the country’s current restrictions are eased on May 4.

Britain’s leader, Boris Johnson, returned to work yesterday after being hospitalized by COVID-19, one of nearly three million people known to have been infected worldwide. The pandemic has forced more than half of humanity into lockdowns, upending lives and tipping the global economy toward a recession of a severity not seen in decades. Millions of Muslims are marking a Ramadan like no other under restrictions for a month of dusk-to-dawn fasting that in happier times involves large family meals. Saudi Arabia partially lifted its curfew, but said it would maintain a round-the-clock lockdown in the holy city of Makkah.

In Spain, which has had some of the strictest measures in Europe, children ventured outside Sunday for the first time since mid-March, some wearing small masks and gloves. Not every country has enforced social distancing during the pandemic, however. Secretive Turkmenistan, one of the few places not to have reported a single COVID-19 case – despite bordering virus hotspot Iran – held festivities to honor its national horse, with spectators packed into a hippodrome.

While cases and deaths plateau, the world remains in wait-and-see mode as scientists race to develop treatments and, eventually, a vaccine for the virus. Several countries plan to introduce virus tracing apps to alert users if they are near someone who has tested positive – technology already downloaded by nearly two million Australians, despite privacy concerns.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said a first stage of a reopening would start on May 15 if hospitalizations decrease. But for some conservative-led US states, that timeframe is too long. Rejecting the advice of top disease experts, Georgia has allowed thousands of businesses to resume operations, and Oklahoma will let restaurants and cinemas reopen from May. “People are still going to get it. But Oklahomans are safe and we’re ready for a measured reopening,” Governor Kevin Stitt told Fox News.