DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) In Kuwait’s small, oil-rich sheikhdom, foreigners who empower the country’s economy, serve its society and make up 70% of its population are struggling to get coronavirus vaccines. .
Unlike other Gulf Arab states that have administered mass doses of foreign workers in a race to achieve herd immunity, Kuwait has been criticized for vaccinating their people first.
This leaves legions of workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere clearing the homes of Kuwaiti nationals, caring for their children, driving their cars and packing groceries, still waiting for their first doses, despite carrying the burden of pandemic.
“The only people I saw at the vaccination center were Kuwait,” said a 27-year-old Kuwaiti doctor who, like most people interviewed about the story, spoke anonymously for fear of government retaliation. Kuwait has a policy of everything , including when it comes to public health.
The Kuwaiti authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comments from the Associated Press on their vaccination strategy.
When the Kuwaits vaccination registration site went live in December, authorities stated that health care workers, the elderly and those with basic conditions would be first in line. As the weeks passed, however, it became increasingly clear that most of the doses were going to Kuwait, regardless of their age or health. Initially, some exiled medical workers said they could not even make appointments.
The Kuwaits labor system, which links migrant residence status to their jobs and gives employers great power, prevails in all Gulf Arab countries. But hostility to migrants has long been raging in Kuwait. The legacy of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the mass deportations of Palestinian workers, Jordanians and Yemenis whose leaders had backed Iraq in the conflict, fueled anxiety about the need for self-reliance in Kuwait today even as Southeast Asian workers rushed to fill void.
A 30-year-old Indian woman who has spent her entire life in Kuwait viewed her Instagram feed filled with festive photos of Kuwaiti teenagers being beaten. Her father, a 62-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, could not like the rest of her relatives living there.
All Kuwaitis I know have been vaccinated, she said. More is more than just annoying, it makes sense that no, this is not cute, there is no way I feel like I belong here anymore.
Kuwait has vaccinated its citizens at a rate six times higher than non-citizens, the Ministry of Health revealed earlier this year. At the time, despite about 238,000 foreigners registered online to book an appointment, only 18,000 of them mostly doctors, nurses and well-connected workers in state-owned oil companies were actually called in to get the vaccine. Meanwhile, about 119,000 Kuwaitis were vaccinated.
With vaccine information available only in English or Arabic, lawyers say they block many low-wage workers from Southeast Asia who do not speak any language.
Inequality sparked a heated debate on social media, with users denouncing what they called the last instance of xenophobia in Kuwait. They say the pandemic has heightened dissatisfaction with migrant workers, deepened social divisions and strengthened the government’s determination to protect its people first. Medical professionals warn Kuwait’s inoculation hierarchy harms public health.
Compared to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, among the world’s fastest vaccinators per capita, Kuwait’s movement has stalled. As foreigners wait for the shots, medical workers say Kuwaiti nationals are reluctant to register because of vaccine conspiracy theories widely circulated on social media. Infections have risen, prompting the government to impose a complete state ban overnight last month.
As pressure mounted on the Ministry of Health, the obstacles were eased in recent weeks, with an increasing number of foreign residents aged 65 and older reporting being able to be vaccinated. However, most migrants insist that inequality in access remains striking.
We are waiting and waiting for the call, said a 55-year-old housekeeper from Sri Lanka. The moment I get the call, I will go. I need the vaccine to be safe.
The government has not released a demographic breakdown of vaccinated foreigners versus Kuwaitis since anger over inequality erupted in mid-February, just general vaccination statistics. As of this week, 500,000 people have received at least one dose of either Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca, according to health authorities.
Even as most front-line workers in grocery stores and cafes remain unvaccinated, Kuwait is making plans to reopen society for the inoculated. Those who can prove they have strokes will be able to attend school in the fall, go to the movies in the spring and overcome quarantine after flying in the country, the government announced.
Foreign workers in Kuwait have felt this disappointment before. When the pandemic first struck, lawmakers, talk show executives, and prominent actresses blamed migrants for spreading the virus.
As the coronavirus penetrated crowded districts and dormitories where many foreigners live, authorities imposed targeted blockades and published virus counts with a division of nationalities. As infections among Kuwaitis escalated, the government stopped releasing demographic data.
“Migrants are easy to see as the root of all problems in Kuwait,” said Rohan Advani, a sociology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Citizens have no political or economic power, so when they do not like what is happening,” with their country, blaming foreigners becomes the main selling point.
Despite having an open parliament, ultimate power in Kuwait remains with the emir in power. The citizens of Kuwait, who are guaranteed a place on the public payroll and reap the benefits of a welfare cradle, have increasingly sought policies that restrict the flow of migrants.
Earlier this year, the government banned visa renewals for migrants over 60 without college degrees, effectively deporting some 70,000 people, including many who have lived in Kuwait for decades.
This discrimination is not new to us. The pandemic has just revealed its worst condition, said a 30-year-old Lebanese woman who grew up in Kuwait and her older relatives are still waiting for vaccines.
But that’s life and death, “she said.” I never really thought I would get to this point.