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Vaccine Nationalism in the Gulf: Kuwait's Cruel COVID Caste System

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Temporary COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination center at the Kuwait International Fairground, Kuwait City this month
Temporary COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination center at the Kuwait International Fairground, Kuwait City this month.Credit: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT - AFP
Sebastian Castelier
Sebastian Castelier

Ever since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, on March 11, 2020, Gulf states have openly favored protecting their own citizens, a tiny minority of their populations, over millions of migrant workers, treating them as a disposable workforce entitled to second-class rights only. 

Nowhere is that more visible than in Kuwait. A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Kuwaiti citizens are jumping the queue to get jabbed before migrant workers, who account for about two-thirds of the 4.5 million-strong population. Kuwait is vaccinating its citizens at six times the rate of migrant workers, despite foreigners living and working in the oil-rich Gulf state accounting for more than half of those registered for vaccination.

"It’s been almost one month and a half since I have applied to get vaccinated, but I haven’t got any information so far. I have not seen any migrant worker getting vaccinated yet, except the ones who work in the medical field," said Hari Krishna, a Nepali migrant worker in Kuwait who is a board member of Shramik Sanjal, an advocacy network for migrant workers from Nepal.

By mid-February 2021, around 119,000 Kuwaitis but only 18,000 migrant workers had been vaccinated, a Bloomberg report revealed. "We feel like we have the right to be vaccinated too, because we are here to serve them [the Kuwaitis]. We mostly work in the front line, in restaurants, to deliver food, drive taxis, so being vaccinated is something like protection," Krishna told me.

Kuwait’s citizen-first approach to public policy, of which the discriminatory vaccination campaign is the latest symbol, underlines a barely concealed de facto caste system that is the cornerstone of modern Gulf economies. 

A Kuwaiti citizeb, Abdulla al Anazi, gets a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Kuwait City in December of last year.Credit: STEPHANIE MCGEHEE/ REUTERS

The Gulf states’ dependence on oil for state finances has created segregated societies where locals, entitled to a share of oil revenues and largely unburdened by taxation, rely on foreign workforces to cater for their daily needs. Armies of migrant workers exposed to systematic abuse and exploitation sustain the private sector, deserted by nationals who largely barricade themselves into stable, well-paid jobs in the public sector.

The discrepancy in rights during the pandemic has accelerated. Oman protected citizens from being fired, but not migrant workers. Saudi Arabia subsidized salaries for its citizens only. The United Arab Emirates begrudged sheltering migrant workers left stranded by unscrupulous employers.

Except for Kuwait, none of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have even disclosed how many migrant workers have got a jab. The Qatari Minister of Public Health said earlier this month that "Ten percent of Qatar's adult population has already received at least one vaccine dose," but did not provide any breakdown. The gas-rich nation’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Omani, Bahraini and Saudi health officials.

The pressure to disclose data and for further transparency is mounting, however. The Middle East division of Human Rights Watch told me the organization is researching the issue, and letters inquiring about vaccination plans, in particular for undocumented migrant workers and stateless people, will be sent shortly to GCC states.

A Saudi television anchor stands in front of the logo of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia in January.Credit: Amr Nabil,AP

Globally, Covid-19 vaccinations have also been wildly unfair, and at the mercy of the "vaccine nationalism" of wealthier states. Mid-February 2021, ten countries had administered 75 percent of all vaccine doses given, but more than 130 countries had not received a single dose. "At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has noted.

Gulf governments emphasize that the Covid-19 vaccine is provided free of charge to everyone. However, to be eligible, a valid residence permit is required, which means hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers are deprived of the chance of vaccination.

Ironically, local news outlets, although well aware of their own states’ failure to vaccinate undocumented migrant workers, run reports on the vaccine-less fate of 'invisible' migrants in the UK or South America, choosing to ignore similar problems closer to home.

Why are there so many undocumented workers in the Gulf? Their undocumented status is not the result of choice. Migrant workers are left undocumented against their will because employers, empowered by the kafala, a private sponsorship system likened to modern slavery, exert tight control over their employees. Excluding Bahrain and, in some cases, the UAE, employers have the authority to renew their employees’ residence permits.  

Migrant workers, hostage to their lack of legal status, are naturally worried about registering for vaccination programs, out of fear that Gulf states would use that registration data to deport undocumented migrant workers.

In the Gulf, migrant workers make up the vast majority of catering staff and waiters. In-car dining in Kuwait this month.Credit: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT - AFP

"Undocumented migrant workers must be included in the vaccination programs while being protected; we don’t want them to register and then get deported," says Ali Mohamed of the Middle East-focused advocacy organization Migrant Rights

The situation is even more worrying for domestic workers, who might be forced to work in unvaccinated households, with limited access to vaccines themselves. According to a 2018 study, nine employers out of ten confiscated domestic workers' passports, restricting their freedom of movement, despite a law strictly prohibiting the practice. The need to present a passport for vaccination means the employer's consent becomes an unfeasible prerequisite for the domestic workers to register.

Beyond concerns surrounding equal access to vaccination, most Gulf states also consistently refuse to acknowledge the multicultural dimension of societies they have shaped. Most apps and registration forms for vaccination are only available in English or Arabic, neither of which is the mother tongue of most migrant workers who mainly originate from Asia and Africa.

And Gulf governments can’t avoid the pressure from their own citizens for vaccine primacy. Clemens Chay, a Kuwaiti and Gulf politics scholar at the National University of Singapore, told me that the Kuwaiti government "was having a tough time, trying to satisfy the demands and expectations of the Members of Parliament, but also satisfy public expectations." 

For many migrant workers, however, vaccinations campaigns in the Gulf, although uneven and opaquely accessible, are perceived as more reliable than being jabbed in their home country. 

A Pfizer COVID-19 coronavirus vaccines shipment is offloaded from an Emirates Airlines Boing 777 arriving from Brussels at Dubai International Airport last month.Credit: Kamran Jebreili,AP

"I trust the government here more as I have seen the way they are handling the crisis," said Farhan Khan, an Indian citizen interviewed by the UAE-based newspaper The National. "So if I do get vaccinated I would do it here and not in my home country." India has vaccinated about 0.7 per cent of its population, and at the current rate, it will take about 467 days to vaccinate another 10 percent of the population.

Despite Kuwait’s vaccination campaign "screaming inequality," social workers indicate the vaccination of those who registered in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain appear to be fair, Mohamed from Migrant Rights told me. He added: "It would not really surprise me if Oman is like Kuwait." 

In the UAE, paradoxically, migrant workers, who make up about 88 percent of the total population, have been vaccinated at a record pace, alongside citizens, with four vaccines: Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V. To date, the federation of seven emirates has the world’s second-best vaccination rates per capita, only surpassed by Israel

Private companies have started mass vaccinations of their blue-collar workforce and Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority said early February it already vaccinated some 20,000 employees as part of the mass vaccination of public transport workers. In the streets of Dubai, taxi drivers often show vaccination certificate on their smartphones to tourists visiting the city, one of the few global destinations open to international travellers since July 2020.

The effectiveness of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, the most widely available in the UAE, has long been questioned internationally. Emirati authorities now said it is 79 percent effective against preventing infection, but acknowledged that some people have received a third "booster" shot of the Sinopharm vaccine, after they did not develop antibodies against Covid-19.

A healthcare worker administers the COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination drive at the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara (Sikh temple) in Dubai, UAE last month.Credit: KARIM SAHIB - AFP

The UAE’s race to vaccinate is self-interested, motivated by economic realities and the need to avoid reputational damage. The UAE urgently needs to reopen its economy, and in particular, Dubai, a Middle Eastern business hub that has emerged as a global tourism destination. In 2019, it attracted a record 16.7 million tourists, but Dubai International Airports recorded a record 70 percent slump in traffic in 2020.

Although economic pragmatism has long prevailed in the Gulf above genuine concern for migrant workers, despite their work forming the backbone of the region’s stellar growth since the 1970s, there are slim hopes that the Covid-19 virus, which does not discriminate among whom it infects, might serve as a wake-up call for local populations and policy-makers to consider all residents in its public policy and its conception of civil society.

Indeed, there are early signs that Kuwait’s vaccination discimination might be backfiring. "Unpopular opinion: vaccinate non-Kuwaiti residents of all ages….we won’t reach herd immunity without them as they make up the majority of the population," tweeted Dr Yasmin Zurba, a Kuwait-based Internal Medicine resident.

Indeed, the outbreak is on the rise again. Covid-19 infections are at their peak, and the average number of new infections reported is constantly reaching new highs, currently at around 1,300 every day. That denial and discrimination don’t work, with the consequences felt by everyone, is clear from Kuwait’s recent decision to impose a 5 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew until April 8.

"When public policies are influenced by this kind of xenophobic or exclusionary nationalist discourse, that is what you get," Mohamed concluded. By queue jumping to get jabbed before migrant workers who are foundational to the country, Kuwaitis have ended up shooting themselves, their societies and their economies, in the foot.

Sebastian Castelier is a journalist covering Gulf Arab states and labor migration. His work has appeared in several Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier

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