The largest labour camp in Qatar has become a virtual prison for thousands of migrant workers as a total lockdown was implemented by the authorities after hundreds of construction workers became infected with COVID-19.
The perimeter of the huge zone within the “Industrial Area” is being guarded by the police and no one can enter or leave, workers who live in the area said.
The living conditions in the camps are described to be squalid and over-crowded, where the virus can spread rapidly. While inside the quarantined camps, workers lived in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
“The situation is getting worse each day. Workers from camp 1 to camp 32 are in lockdown. My friends who live there are in extreme panic,” said one worker from Bangladesh.
A Nepali worker who lives inside the area under lockdown said they are barred from leaving it. “We are not allowed to walk in groups or eat in a tea shop. But you can still buy food and take it home. I’m worried about my family back home. There won’t be anyone to take care of them if anything happens to me,” he said.
“The situation is really tense here,” said another Nepali worker.
Sources inside the camp told The Guardian that some workers were being put on unpaid leave until further notice, with only food and accommodation covered.
The lockdown appears to have been enforced after the government announced 238 cases of the virus among “expatriate workers” on March 11. A further 113 cases, most of which appear to be linked to that outbreak, were identified over the following five days.
Yet, while the World Cup host nation has shut down almost all public spaces in the face of the global pandemic, some construction workers who have not tested positive for Covid-19 say they continue to be forced to work, with little more than a temperature check before each shift.
The number of infections in the Gulf is growing rapidly with over 1,200 reported by Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.
Doha’s Industrial Area is vast expanse of warehouses, factories and workers’ accommodation about half an hour from the Qatari capital. It is home to hundreds of thousands of men, most of whom live in cramped dormitories, often packed eight or 10 to a room, making it extremely difficult to stop the transmission of the virus. Communal kitchens and toilets shared by scores of men are often unsanitary and caked in grime.
“How can workers protect themselves when most camps do not have running water and no hand sanitisers? How can you do social distancing in a camp where thousands of men are living side by side? None of the usual advice works in a labour camp”, said Vani Saraswathi, the associate editor of migrant-rights.org, who lived in Qatar for 17 years.
Some workers said they had taken matters into their own hands. “We are doing everything to keep ourselves safe. The camp was a little dirty, so we cleaned everything, changed the bed sheets, and used spray to kill the germs,” said one.
There are around 2 million migrant workers in Qatar – mostly from south Asia and east Africa – who make up 95% of the working population. The number of migrants has increased rapidly in recent years as the country gears up to host the World Cup in 2022.
Conditions are similar across the Gulf, where millions of migrant workers are the lifeblood of the economy. In Bahrain, 800 workers are reportedly in quarantine.
The picture is less clear in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, where the authorities have released little information about how the virus is affecting migrant workers. (Source: The Guardian)