KUWAIT: This April 18, 2021 file photo shows people lined up outside the Kuwait Vaccination Center in Mishref to receive their doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By Reem Al-Gharabally

KUWAIT: Starting Sunday, June 27, only vaccinated citizens and residents will be allowed to visit shopping malls, salons and barbershops, gyms, restaurants and other locations, the Kuwait Cabinet has decreed. The news has caused anxiety for many people, mostly residents, who have registered with the Ministry of Health but are still waiting to receive the vaccine.

Dave, a personal training manager at a large gym said that only three trainers of a staff of 40 in the gym have been vaccinated. The remaining staff, among them trainers, receptionists and cleaning crew, are registered but still waiting to receive their first shot.

“My first thought when I heard about the new restrictions was our gym is going to have to shut down because almost all our staff are not vaccinated,” he told Kuwait Times. “We have now been told that unvaccinated employees are okay to work, but unvaccinated clients can’t come in. It does not make any sense to me.”

Dave said they have since received a backlash from clients regarding the unvaccinated staff members which has resulted in management taking the decision not to allow unvaccinated staff to train. “I can understand the frustration of clients, but the rules are not ours! To me, their anger is focused on the wrong people. And now our staff will suffer,” he explained. Plenty of workers are facing lost jobs and income because of the new restrictions.

Fears for the unvaccinated
Rajesh, a 30-year-old radiology technician at a private hospital and his colleague are also waiting for their appointments despite being health workers. “They should first provide people with the vaccination and then if they want, they can introduce these rules. How is it possible to vaccinate everyone who are still waiting within a week?” Rajesh asks.

According to a study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fully immunized participants were 25 times less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those who were unvaccinated. But without contact tracing to track transmission in a larger population, it is impossible to know if vaccinated people will not spread infection. Kuwait does not have an extensive contact tracing program in place.

The Covidvax website projects Kuwait has since December administered more than 3.1 million vaccine doses to date. At this rate, Kuwait could have 70 percent of the population fully vaccinated (with two doses) by September 2021. But what about all the people still unvaccinated, or who have received only one jab so far? What will they do this summer if they cannot go to malls, salons, gyms or other commercial places?

Kuwait’s vaccine rollout so far is small reassurance for Sara, a Lebanese content creator who has waited six months for her appointment to receive the vaccine. She is worried that as of next week, the new rules will make it impossible for her to do her job effectively.

“Part of what we do is work in places that we will be denied access to as unvaccinated people,” Sara said. “We are all happy to abide by the rules. We all sheltered in place when we were asked to. We have followed the rules by the book; when they instigated the curfews we stayed home and did not do neighborhood walks at night. It is very unfair to those who did everything right and still there is no access to a vaccine yet.”

Sara has a two-year-old child. “What am I going to do with a toddler who is too young to go to school, who can’t go to a park because the summer here is smoldering? Where am I going to take her? All I can do is take her to walk around a mall or go to a restaurant and now I won’t be able to do that.”

Sara’s colleague Dana is also still waiting for her vaccine and is worried the effect the new rules are going to have on older children of parents who still have not had access to the vaccine. “They are going to get depressed and struggle mentally and we will watch a child go from happy, bubbly to despondent and apathetic because I am watching that happen to my 13-year-old.”

Many resident mothers have joined mothers’ groups on social media to share their anxiety while they continue to wait for their vaccine. Sara feels the chasm between vaccinated Kuwaitis and non-vaccinated residents is growing. “We get many replies from privileged, liberal locals where they ask us if we registered properly or that they are sure this rule does not apply to me. It is enraging,” she said.

“I have been made to feel time and time again since the beginning of the pandemic as long as the small portion of the population is guaranteed access to health care and vaccines and they can travel and come back then all is well. The rules have been racist from the very beginning and it is hard to say there is no racism when every single decision feels racist.”

Business owners impacted too
The new restrictions have also caused concern among business owners. Fahad Al-Arbash, head of the Kuwait Union of Restaurant, Cafe and Catering Companies, asks on Twitter: “How are you going to implement this law for 11,000 restaurants, 3,000 salons and 1,000 health clubs?”

Salon owner Lorie Killingsworth says she has managed to get half her staff fully vaccinated, but the other half are waiting for their second dose. She thinks the new rules are going to affect her business. “We are getting a lot of calls from people asking if we are going to follow the guidelines of the ministry of health. Of course we are,” she said. “Clients are asking to get in quick to get their hair cut. And then they ask if we can do home service. That is another grey area. That would be defeating the purpose.”

Lori believes many workers in smaller salons across Kuwait are not vaccinated. “I managed to get my staff vaccinated by registering through a vaccine campaign event organized by the salon union. On the day, word got out there were thousands of people lined up, both male and female salon workers. Then a Ministry of Health person walked the line and turned them away because their salon had not pre-registered. That was sort of sad.”

Left out
Another group will also be affected by the new restrictions: those who do not want to or cannot vaccinate. Samira, a Kuwaiti teacher at a private school, suffers from the autoimmune condition lupus. The CDC warns that people with autoimmune conditions may receive the vaccine, but they need to be aware that no data is currently available on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for people with such conditions. Samira tried to obtain a medical exemption from the Ministry of Health citing this concern but says it has been rejected.

“I feel I have no freedoms in my own country. I feel I am being held prisoner. Also, I am half American and most of my family and siblings live in America and I can’t go see them because I cannot leave the country without a vaccine. I think on the spectrum of who is affected by this in Kuwait I am still relatively privileged so if I am feeling this way, I can only imagine the level of violation residents feel.”