KUWAIT: Cleaning workers seen through barbwire in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh. – Photo by Fouad Al-Shaikh

By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: It’s been more than a month since Kuwait closed its sea, air and land borders to protect the country from the deadly spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown covers the whole country, and to prevent the spread of local transmission, Kuwait has also imposed a curfew from 5 pm to 6 am. Some places needed tougher measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, so a total lockdown was imposed in two areas believed to be heavily infected – Mahboula and Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh.

Kuwait Times spoke to residents living in these areas after a week of total isolation. Sandy, a beautician at a hair salon in Mahboula, said life is getting tougher each day. “We are okay here in Mahboula, but it’s not easy. Every passing day I feel like we are in prison. I am scared and sad for my baby – I fear for his future and for me and my husband. We are helpless and I hope this will not last long,” she said.

‘This is for real’
Sandy’s family is among the many currently under complete lockdown after a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Mahboula. A few days before the lockdown, around five buildings were cordoned off in the area, and their occupants were eventually transferred to a quarantine facility. “On first day and second days of the lockdown, we were in wait-and-see mode.

It hadn’t sunk in yet. But now this is for real. I saw people trying to escape being prevented by authorities. I saw some people running out of the area with their bags,” she said. “This seems like a bad movie scene, but we just need to follow the authorities,” she added.

According to Sandy, since March 1 she hasn’t gone to take a walk with her son in her neighborhood, fearing the virus could be anywhere. “Normally every morning I walk with a stroller with my son, and on weekends I walk with him by the seaside. Now I cannot do this and I miss it dearly,” she said. Her building is off the main highway and near the entry point of vehicles entering Mahboula.

“I saw everything unfold right in front of my eyes from the fifth floor of my 12-storey residential building in the first few days. I took videos of police placing barbwire and barricades around us. I saw several military vehicles moving in and out of the place and police cars roaming around.

I saw almost every day ambulances moving in and out of the area. I saw people with their belongings stopped by authorities. Now we have kind of accepted the fact that we are in isolation,” Sandy said. She said she hasn’t received any food rations from the government. “We are fine so far; we have food courtesy of our employer, but I hope this crisis will not last longer.”

‘Stay at home’
Rems, another resident of Mahboula who lives across a huge open yard, witnessed the exodus of people trying to evade the lockdown and the chaotic distribution of gas cylinders and bread. “Here in my building, it is as if I am watching the huge screen of a movie theater. I witness several scenes and dramas every day. I cannot imagine why they are all down walking as if nothing is happening. For God’s sake – the government is calling on everyone to stay at home, yet they are walking around without social distancing,” she said.

As an assistant teacher, Rems’ work stopped since the national holidays. “From that day to now, I can count on my fingers the times I went out to the baqala to purchase something to eat. But that was until they totally locked down the area. Since then, I haven’t ventured out. I’m at home with my fellow teachers, scared that we will run out of food to eat.

We know that we can go out to buy something, but we don’t because we are all females and we don’t want to get into trouble with anyone we don’t know. We are scared to hear the sound of police and ambulance sirens. But our main concern now is until when the lockdown will remain and when the pandemic will end,” she said.

Rems said they are counting the days under lockdown and curfew. “The four of us in this flat belong to different Christian denominations, but because of this pandemic, we pray together, asking God’s favor to remove the virus and help us return to normalcy. Many times we cannot help but cry. We have bonded due to this pandemic, and are strongly connected to each other,” she said.

They have separate rooms, but many times they come out together from their rooms with swollen eyes. “We all laugh at each other because we know why we have swollen eyes, because we cried all night long talking to our families back home. It’s crazy – we pray to God that we do not end up in the mental hospital,” she quipped.

‘Scarier than wartime’
May Suguitan Siapno has been residing in Jleeb for the past 30 years. She has a family here with grown-up children. She said what she is experiencing today is scarier than during wartime. “I came immediately after the liberation – the sky was covered with smoke from burning oilfields. I was scared then, but I am more scared now, because you have to protect your family from an unseen enemy. In addition to this battle, people I know are messaging me all the time because they need food,” she said.

Siapno used to help with anything she could to unburden her fellow Filipinos. She is known to the Philippine Embassy as a person assisting undocumented children in their education while awaiting repatriation. After the lockdown, Filipinos who have no work and no pay have been contacting her for assistance, and she serves as a link to hundreds of Filipinos waiting to get food from Filipino NGOs and the embassy.

“I coordinated with an official from the Philippines who eventually linked me to a Kuwaiti, who helped us get supplies,” she said. “The life of several Filipinos here is really difficult – they were abandoned by their employers in time of need. They have no work, so the employers are not paying them,” she said.

Jleeb is barricaded with barbwire and no one is allowed to leave or enter the area without a permit. Various communities are helping each other to obtain immediate needs. “It’s almost a week now, but we haven’t received any food or supplies from Filipino organizations. We are sharing rice and canned goods, bread, milk, eggs and cheese to survive,” Siapno said.

She said a Kuwaiti man, a longtime friend of Siapno who works at the police station in Jleeb, is helping them obtain supplies. “We are proud of some individuals and Filipino organizations who are helping us, besides the help promised by the embassy,” she concluded.