A larger burden of death: Kuwait's migrant workers and COVID

Dozens of migrant workers queue outside the Dhaka airport before their flight to Saudi Arabia. Many of the workers going to Saudi Arabia were unable to board their plane as they did not receive the second dose of a covid-19 vaccine [Getty Images]
7 min read
28 October, 2021
A recent study found migrant workers suffered over a 70% increase in mortality as COVID-19 hit Kuwait, leaving an already defenceless population to fend for themselves.

A few days into Kuwait’s complete lockdown in May 2020, Danmika, an Indian migrant worker, was told by his employer that he should expect a further delay in getting his wages.

Less than a month later, with an alarming rise in both coronavirus cases and xenophobic rhetoric against migrants, Danmika’s employer kicked him out.

Roaming the oil-rich country during the lockdown, a punishable offence at the time, Danmika makes it to Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, a tiny area in Kuwait’s Farwaniya Governorate mostly populated with South Asian migrant workers. There, Danmika shared a room “barely big enough for two people” with six to eight other migrant workers at a time all the while contracting the virus several times, he said.

"Deaths among migrant workers would have been approximately 71.9% lower in the absence of the pandemic"

With poor food security, less than poor hygienic conditions and a confined space crammed with people dangerously exposed to a deadly virus, Danmika knows surviving this recipe for disaster makes him an outlier – one that his friends and peers didn’t have a chance to be.

“We knew there’s a deadly virus in the world. We knew we can catch it and die,” the 31-year-old said. “But we never knew if we were going to eat that day, if we were going to sleep, if we could leave soon to go back to our families. What are you supposed to do when you can’t handle what you know and you can’t handle what you don’t know?”

Like Danmika, blue-collar migrant workers at large were easy targets for the COVID-19 infection and societal neglect alike.

Kuwait's migrant workers face a treacherous future, as both unregulated working conditions and poor satiation facilities make catching COVID-19 particularly acute [Getty Images]
Kuwait's migrant workers face a treacherous future, as unregulated working conditions and poor sanitation facilities allow COVID-19 to spread with ease [Getty]

A recent public health study, published by BioMed Central, a UK-based open access publisher of scientific reports, aimed to estimate excess deaths among Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti migrant populations during the pandemic year of 2020.

“Deaths among migrant workers would have been approximately 71.9 percent lower in the absence of the pandemic,” the study found, adding that migrant workers, already systemically disadvantaged, “shouldered a larger burden of deaths.”

For Barrak Al-Ahmad, a key author of the report and a doctoral student in Harvard University’s population health sciences program, the results are disturbing but not surprising.

“At first, we saw that migrant workers were more likely to be admitted to the ICU and more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to Kuwaitis,” Al-Ahmad told The New Arab. “We attribute this to systemic discrimination on societal, social environmental levels that essentially lead to overall poor health.”

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With that preliminary assessment, driven by the “historical roots” of discriminatory practices against migrants, Al-Ahmad and his medical peers conducted a mortality analysis, measuring the rate of death in a population at risk during a specified time.

Although Kuwaitis also suffered over a 30 percent rise in mortality, the 40-point difference in numbers pointed to a “much deadlier” reality for non-Kuwaitis, Al-Ahmad said.

As soon as a global pandemic was declared, the government amped up its medical efforts to combat the virus but providing free treatment for all did not translate well for migrants. Over the years, from rising medical expenses and unsafe working conditions to an ill-explained healthcare system and lack of translation services, migrant workers are left discouraged in engaging with Kuwait’s institutions.

When Al-Ahmad was asked of his professional medical assessment on Kuwait’s health protocols for its migrant population, he called it “ethically indefensible.”

"Although Kuwaitis also suffered over a 30% rise in mortality, the 40-point difference in numbers pointed to a 'much deadlier' reality for non-Kuwaitis"

This established distrust, combined with a rarely punished prejudice against non-nationals, impaired migrant workers and set their likelihood to survive infection up for fatal failure.

In the private sector, especially for blue-collar workers, the distrust was accompanied by abuse. Majid, (not his real name) spoke to The New Arab under the condition of anonymity. He is a Kuwaiti governmental services officer for a large steel manufacturing company. Before the pandemic, his job was as simple as finalising work visas for migrant workers. During the pandemic, his job was “to make sure the factory floor was never empty,” he said.

“The first thing I remember from that period is begging the Ministry of Health for extra beds. The second thing is running out of them and trying to figure out how to house hundreds of steelworkers across the facility,” Majid said.

Empty factory floors meant money lost for corporations and businesses, Majid explained. Alongside maintaining an uninterrupted workflow, many businesses withheld wages, forcefully kept their employees on the business ground and “in luckier situations, maybe have a doctor or private medical group come to visit every now and then,” he said.

Although the pandemic caught the world off-guard, Majid said he believes both the state and the private sector should have done better. At the end of the interview, Majid stood outside his workplace and waved his arm along the industrial row, adding “this entire place, all this death for money.”

Like Majid’s experience, many believe local authorities should have implemented more nuanced protocols in combatting the pandemic.

But, regardless of how well-equipped a nation is, COVID-19 caught the world off-guard.

“The pandemic was a surprise. Preparations, capabilities, hospital capacity… it doesn’t matter, no one’s ever ready for a surprise,” said Ali, a Kuwaiti head nurse at a governmental hospital whose last name is omitted for his safety.

However, when surprise soon became status quo and the pandemic a constant reality, it didn’t take long for a “swift turning point back to our norms,” he said.

Often rotating his work shifts across governmental hospitals, Ali noted favourable treatment toward Kuwaitis over migrants. He’d often “receive informal instructions to transfer non-Kuwaiti patients to field hospitals” where “the only thing you’ll find more than patients is cockroaches and dust,” he said.

"If you want to see the reality, go count the graves of migrant workers who never stood a chance"

Corroborating Ali’s experience, Sara, an expat doctor whose real name is omitted for their safety, said doctors, patients and the entire healthcare system was all immediately “thrown in the deep end with no protective gear, no masks, not even guidance from department heads.”

Although Sara is born-and-raised in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti mother, local law only allows a male national to pass on nationality. Looking and speaking the part wasn’t enough for the Ministry of Health, she said, pointing to the “expat majority of front-liners sent off to fight the virus.”

“Most nationals were assigned to work in these gorgeous buildings with paperless systems. For us, off to the field hospitals with no security and insect infestations everywhere,” she told The New Arab.

When asked if nationals were prioritised over migrant patients, Sara said the “real fear of Kuwaiti patients weaponising their connections” created a work culture where doctors would ask about a patient’s nationality before their symptoms.

Citing several instances where her colleagues, both national and expat medical providers, were “put under investigation” for exposing conditions to the public, Sara explained going against unspoken orders jeopardises their job security.

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For John, whose real name is omitted for their safety and is part of an underground coalition of migrant workers, unspoken orders represent a larger bureaucratic problem. For over a decade, John and his colleagues have networked with local authorities and international bodies alike.

However, when it comes to policymaking, he said “laws are either made to contradict each other or introduced with no practical basis, just on the spot reactionary pressure.”

Pointing to Kuwait’s vaccination process as an example, John said excluding non-Kuwaitis for months was only consistent with how local authorities dealt with the pandemic.

“You can look at any number you want. The ratio makes sense in relation to the population and exposure to the virus,” he said. “But if you want to see the reality, go count the graves of migrant workers who never stood a chance.”

Yousef H. Alshammari is a US-based Kuwaiti journalist and writer with a focus on international politics and culture. 

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefWryRonin