Kuwait under fire for ‘citizen-first’ policy in COVID-19 vaccination


Kuwait’s expats, who make up 70% of its population, are struggling to get the COVID-19 jab, while other Gulf Arab states have administered coronavirus vaccines to masses of foreign workers in a race to reach herd immunity.

Compared to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, among the world’s fastest vaccinators per capita, Kuwait’s drive has lagged and has come under fire for vaccinating its own people first.

Legions of labourers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere, who clean Kuwaiti nationals’ homes, care for their children, drive their cars and bag their groceries, are still waiting for their first doses, despite bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

“The only people I’ve seen at the vaccination centre were Kuwaiti,” said a 27-year-old Kuwaiti doctor, who like most people interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. “Kuwait has a citizens-first policy for everything, including when it comes to public health.”

Kuwaiti authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press on their vaccination strategy.

When Kuwait’s vaccination registration site went live in December, authorities declared that health-care workers, older adults and those with underlying conditions would be first in line.

As weeks ticked by, however, it became increasingly clear the lion’s share of doses was going to Kuwaitis, regardless of their age or health. Initially, some expat medical workers said they couldn’t even get appointments.

While foreigners wait for shots, medical workers say Kuwaiti citizens remain reluctant to register because of vaccine conspiracy theories shared widely on social media. Infections have soared, prompting the government to impose a strict nightly curfew last month.

A 30-year-old Indian woman who has spent her whole life in Kuwait watched her Instagram feed fill with celebratory photos of Kuwaiti teenagers getting the jab. Her father, a 62-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, could not — like the rest of her relatives living there.

“All the Kuwaitis I know are vaccinated,” she said. “It’s more than just annoying, it’s a realization that no, this is not cool, there is no way to feel like I belong here anymore.”

Kuwait has vaccinated its citizens at a rate six times that of non-citizens, the Health Ministry revealed earlier this year.

Despite some 238,000 foreigners registering online to book an appointment, only 18,000 of them — mostly doctors, nurses and well-connected workers in state oil companies — were actually called in to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, some 119,000 Kuwaitis were vaccinated.

With vaccine information only available in English or Arabic, advocates say that locks out scores of low-wage labourers from Southeast Asia who speak neither language.

The disparity set off a roiling debate on social media, with users decrying what they called the latest instance of xenophobia in Kuwait.

Hostility toward migrants has long burned hot in Kuwait. The legacy of the 1991 Gulf War, which triggered mass deportations of Palestinian, Jordanian and Yemeni workers, whose leaders had supported Iraq in the conflict, fuelled anxiety about the need for self-reliance in Kuwait that endures today — even as Southeast Asian labourers rushed to fill the void.

They say the pandemic has magnified resentment of migrant workers, deepened social divides and hardened the government’s resolve to protect its own people first. Medical professionals warned Kuwait’s inoculation hierarchy damages public health.

Foreign workers in Kuwait have felt this frustration before. When the pandemic first struck, lawmakers, talk show hosts and prominent actresses blamed migrants for the virus’s spread.

As the coronavirus ripped through crowded districts and dormitories where many foreigners live, authorities imposed targeted lockdowns and published surging virus counts with a breakdown of nationalities. When infections among Kuwaitis rose, the government stopped releasing demographic data. (Source: Mainichi Japan)