As in any Arab country where true statistics are a strategic enemy, in Qatar it’s hard to find an agreed-upon number of cases to show the extent of the coronavirus pandemic.
Qatar’s neighbor, Iraq, found a surefire way to control the data. It revoked Reuters’ work permit for three months and fined it $20,000 for what Iraq said was false reporting about the spread of the disease. While the official statistics reported of some 840 cases, Reuters reported thousands, based on its sources in the Iraqi health services. Iraq also banned the distribution of print newspapers and editorial staff were restricted to a minimum to stop the spread of the virus.
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Qatar has another essential interest in controlling data. It has a World Cup to think about. Qatar did report 1,046 cases of the coronavirus, but the report stressed that none of those infected were involved in constructing facilities for the FIFA World Cup, scheduled for 2022.
The fate of the games is, naturally, a top concern for the country, which has already invested billions of dollars in infrastructure and buildings, and continues to do so. This is the most important international event that Qatar has ever organized for itself. As a country under boycott by Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, hosting the World Cup is not only a matter of prestige, it will also poke a finger in the eye of Qatar’s adversaries when they see how the country has become an international attraction.
But the coronavirus might have other plans. More than two million people living in Qatar are foreign workers from Nepal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Arab countries. A good many of them live in separate, very densely populated neighborhoods. Last week the Qatari government published directives intended to reduce the risk of infection from the coronavirus and protect the health of the workers in the “World Cup industry.”
On the face of it, the directives seem reasonable. For example, employers are required to reduce the number of hours in a shift, distribute masks and gloves, disinfect workplaces, take all workers’ temperatures upon their arrival at a worksite, and send workers suspected of having the virus into isolation facilities and mobile clinics that have been erected near construction sites. Workers must maintain a safe distance from each other and observe hygiene rules. The government also mandated that all workers in isolation be paid their wages for six weeks, and half of their regular wages after this period, in addition to accumulated sick days. Workers may also return to their home country if they find that their families are experiencing difficulty as a result of the virus (in keeping with travel restrictions to and from Qatar.)
But between these instructions and reality is an apparently yawning gap. Human rights groups are reporting dangerous overcrowding in workers’ living quarters, a lack of disinfectant, and a dearth of necessary information about preventing the spread of the virus. The Qatari Health Ministry holds workshops and explanatory sessions at major construction sites, but the workers say that workplaces don’t follow the rules, with employers threatening wage cuts or termination for workers who don't meet quotas. Many workers have been put on unpaid leave and Health Ministry inspectors who are supposed to be enforcing the rules have conspired with employers to evade them.
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In the past, Qatar has been accused of severely disregarding proper labor conditions, leading to the deaths of thousands of workers. It was even threatened with losing the right to host the World Cup if it didn’t take steps to protect laborers and drastically reduce the number of workplace accidents. Qatar took the threat to heart and in a short time changed its regulations for employing foreign workers to suit international standards.
But as with the coronavirus, regulations are one thing and reality is something else. Workers continue to be injured and killed, and hundreds die of heat stroke and poor medical care. While until last year Qatar could immediately find replacements for foreign workers who were injured or killed, now the coronavirus has imposed severe new restrictions that could delay construction of sports facilities.
Regular flights between Qatar and the workers’ home countries are almost non-existent, so foreign workers can’t reach Qatar, and those already living there are afraid to go to work out of fear of infection. Moreover, despite official statements saying that work will continue apace, the international soccer federation FIFA is following construction projects in Qatar with concern.
Less than two years ago, Qatar could be threatened with moving the games to another country — the name of its rival Saudi Arabia even came up. But if Qatar doesn't meet the conditions to host the games now, two years before the games are scheduled to begin, the World Cup may have reached the point of no return: Either the games will take place in Qatar or be postoned indefinitely.
The games are still two years away. But the question is whether Qatar will be able to have all the facilities ready on time and whether the figures Qatar is reporting on the spread of the virus are true, so that decisions can be made according to the World Cup’s schedule.