Qatar Country Report

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The State of Qatar has been an anomaly in its response to COVID-19. Despite numerous policies implemented in response to the pandemic,1 Qatar still possessed at one point one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates.2 Accordingly, the following question is posed - what can potentially explain previously high infection rates despite Qatar’s swift policy responses? Assuming these data for Qatar are accurate, we note three potential factors that could simultaneously account for Qatar’s previously high infection rates of COVID-19 and its swift response: the high priority placed on the acquisition of resources and equipment such as tests, the proactive communication structure allowing people to be aware of test locations, and the migrant labor camp conditions that necessitate the need for tests to begin with.

Qatar’s ability to quickly attend to multiple individuals can be attributed, in part, to the increased investment that the State of Qatar has put into obtaining COVID-19 tests and other related resources. In other words, Qatar has actively taken steps to use its economic well-being, where it has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world,3 to afford more tests and make testing easier.4 5 But this ability to afford tests cannot fully explain Qatar’s comprehensive testing strategy. Qatar has also made diligent effort to acquire other necessary equipment. For instance, the country started to allocate hospitals as COVID-19 treatment wards as early as March 30.6 His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani provided oversight for the companies affiliated with the Department of Defense producing the ventilators as early as April 29.7 This suggests that Qatar has intentionally used its additional funding to attend to individuals after they have been affected.8 Also, the country’s robust contact-tracing program, introduced May 22, provides further impetus to detect cases after people have become ill.9 Such a massive testing investment has paid dividends to Qatar’s COVID-19 relief efforts in multiple ways. First, it allows them to immediately isolate and care for affected or potentially affected individuals, which the government has repeatedly shown to prioritize.10 11 But increased testing also allows them to “understand the flow of the virus,”12 ascertaining how it reaches people better than before. With both a plan to respond to the problem in the short-term and increase understanding of the bigger picture, Qatar’s model of handling COVID-19 seems to have potential. This can be primarily attributed to its unprecedented investment in COVID-19 testing resources.

Qatar has been able to quickly tend to many individuals in part due to its centralized communication. The overall COVID-19 response has primarily relied on the Qatari Government Communications Office (GCO), whose objectives include to “[b]e the principal source of news and information related to the government of Qatar,” while it “…works with ministries and other key organizations to tell Qatar’s story”.13 The allocation of the GCO as the primary source of news has enabled them to quickly take the country’s response into its own hands. Soon after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 occurred on February 29, the country established a hotline for citizens to receive information regarding testing.14 Such prompt outreach illustrates how the Qatari government is not only taking a proactive approach to the pandemic, but is also enhancing government trust and demonstrating its emphasis on the welfare of citizens.

Nevertheless, many pieces of the COVID-19 pandemic in Qatar simply cannot be explained away by increased testing. For instance, Qatar has a significantly higher positive rate than other countries that test more than 100 per 100,000 people.15 Clearly, testing alone cannot solve the COVID-19 pandemic.16 In order to understand the complete picture of COVID-19 in Qatar, we will need to understand the structural factors that enable the virus to spread.

While testing remains the primary weapon in Qatar’s arsenal against the virus, one must also consider Qatar’s demographics to fully understand the outcomes that Qatar presently encounters. In similarity to other nations in the Gulf, Qatar relies heavily on migrant labor. The migrant workforce forms the backbone of the country’s blue-collar workforce. An army of janitors, construction workers, domestic helpers and security guards come primarily from the Indian subcontinent in search of employment. It is imperative to note that over 89% of the state’s population is not Qatari by nationality.17 Migrant labor communities, by and large, do not have access to affordable and quality healthcare facilities. In addition to this, migrant workers are less likely to be cognizant of public health guidelines, less likely to go get tested and are likely to live in conditions that make containment of outbreaks particularly challenging.18 The gravity of the situation is reflected in the fact that over 60% of COVID-19 cases can be attributed to Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi migrant workers.19 To complicate matters further, while Qatar prides itself on its testing capabilities, some workers have maintained that many are reluctant to undergo testing for fear of potential deportation. If this is proven true, it may indicate that the Qatari government data grossly underrepresents the real COVID-19 caseload.20

This presents Qatar with a unique challenge: How does a country contain the virus in a community which is its most vulnerable and in which self-enforcement, or even enforcement, of public health guidelines is uncommon?

From a planning and policy perspective, Qatar has been cognizant of the challenge that migrant labor camps bring. There have been a series of measures undertaken to contain the virus.21 Qatar has, quite admirably, since early March provided free testing and healthcare services to all and has launched several public health and awareness campaigns. In mid-March, migrant labor camps, located at the outskirts of the capital, were placed under a strict lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus. While this may topically seem like a well-reasoned decision, various reports suggest otherwise. The labor camps have been characterized by dismal conditions including overcrowding, lack of sanitation, irregular and insufficient supply of clean water and food. Dormitories are cramped, where sometimes eight to ten workers reside in a single room. Communal bathrooms and kitchens are common, and they facilitate COVID-19 transmission with unsurprising effectiveness. Since March, the state police has been patrolling the outskirts, and entry and exit is strictly prohibited, to the extent that, more recently, The Guardian news outlet referred to them as a “virtual prison.”22

Furthermore, workers who have tested negative have been forced to continue working. Construction for World Cup 2022, a project approximately valued up to $USD 200 billion, has continued despite the pandemic. This is consequently placing on-site migrant construction workers at high risk.23 Social distancing norms and other public health guidelines are reportedly severely neglected at construction sites and in the transportation provided to and from sites.24

Qatar’s primary challenge with the migrant labor constituency has been enforcement. The government dismisses such allegations as “isolated incidents” and vehemently maintains that enforcement is far from lax.25 Qatar states that thousands of unannounced inspections of the construction sites have taken place, and violations have been strictly dealt with.26 Along with unannounced inspections, the government, through its electronic wage protection system, has also attempted to ensure that wages are continued to be paid and that employers provide workers with housing and food, even in the event that their contract expires.27 Legally, employers are obligated to respect social distancing measures, limit the number of on-site workers and exercise necessary caution. But this does not seem to have entirely transpired. Despite inspections, monetary fines, laws relating to housing as well as social distancing, the situation remains somber. This noticeable lack of enforcement — which endangers workers’ lives — has historical roots in Qatar’s Kafala (sponsorship) system. This effectively, as a UN special report states, creates a “de facto caste system based on national origin” and facilitates “structural racial discrimination”.28 Lack of workers’ protection and rights is a criticism that the state is a frequent recipient of. Having historically neglected this constituency, it is unsurprising that as it fights the pandemic, Qatar’s most vulnerable are its greatest weakness. Historical exclusion of migrant communities puts them at further risk and creates a vicious cycle. Since laws and policies to protect workers’ rights and enforce public health guidelines are closely intertwined, both are either lax or non-existent in Qatar.

Months later, the crisis in the migrant labor camps is starting to subside. Accordingly, restrictions are gradually being eased and lockdowns are being lifted in phases.29 Public spaces — restaurants, beaches, mosques and parks — have opened up and 50% of private and public sector workers have returned to work. Flights from low-risk countries have been resumed and non-essential businesses are opening.30 But this raises the question: how has the situation within labor camps changed to allow such measures to be taken? Unfortunately, we have few answers right now. Future research needs to be conducted to examine and establish specific causations. One thing, however, is for certain. Without continued attention and resources to labor camps and their migrant community residents, COVID-19 will not be eradicated, even if it has been temporarily mitigated.

  1. Cheng, Cindy, et al. June 23rd, 2020. Nature: Human Behavior,

  2. The Daily Star. July 23rd, 2020.

  3. The World Bank. 2019.

  4. Varley, Kevin. May 5th, 2020. Bloomberg,

  5. See also: Elmore, Naela, June 23rd, 2020. CoronaNet Research Project.

  6. Ministry of Public Health. March 30th, 2020. The Ministry of Public Health,

  7. The Gulf Times. April 29th, 2020.

  8. Varley, Kevin. May 5th, 2020. Bloomberg.

  9. Qatar OFW. May, 2020.

  10. Government Communications Office. March 28th, 2020.

  11. Government Communications Office. April 20th, 2020.

  12. Primary Healthcare Corporation Qatar. May 5th, 2020. Twitter.

  13. Ibid

  14. Ministry of Public Health. February 29th, 2020.

  15. Johns Hopkins University. September 12th, 2020.

  16. Geraghty, Jim. May 19th, 2020. The National Review.

  17. Snoj, Jure. August 15th, 2019. Priya Dsouza Communications.

  18. Karasapan, Omer. September 17th, 2020. Brookings.

  19. Los Angeles Times. July 23rd, 2020.

  20. Pattisson, Pete and Roshan Sedhai. March 20th, 2020. The Guardian.

  21. Foxman, Simone. March 18th, 2020. Bloomberg.

  22. Pattisson, Pete and Roshan Sedhai. March 20th, 2020. The Guardian.

  23. Cousins, Sophie. April 8th, 2020. Foreign Policy.

  24. Ibid

  25. Hamad Al Thani, Thamer. May 19th, 2020. The Guardian.

  26. Hamad Al Thani, Thamer. April 16th, 2020. The New York Times.

  27. Hamad Al Thani, Thamer. May 19th, 2020. The Guardian.

  28. Pattisson, Pete. July 15th, 2020. The Guardian.

  29. Al Jazeera. June 9th, 2020.

  30. The Peninsula. July 26th, 2020.,-gyms,-some-restaurants-to-reopen-in-Qatar