DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – In the oil-rich little sheikh of Kuwait, foreigners who power the country’s economy, serve its society and make up 70% of its population are struggling to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Unlike other Persian Gulf states that have dosed masses of foreign workers in a race for herd immunity, Kuwait has come under fire for vaccinating its own people first.
That leaves legions of workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere, cleaning Kuwaiti citizens’ homes, taking care of their children, driving their cars and packing their groceries, still waiting for their first doses, despite being hit the hardest by the pandemic.
“The only people I have seen at the vaccination center were Kuwaitis,” said a 27-year-old Kuwaiti doctor who, like most of the people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the government. “Kuwait has a citizens-first-for-all policy, including when it comes to public health.”
Kuwaiti authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press on its vaccination strategy.
When Kuwait’s vaccination registry site went live in December, authorities declared that healthcare workers, the elderly and those with underlying illnesses would be first in line. However, as the weeks passed, it became increasingly apparent that most doses were going to Kuwaitis, regardless of their age or health. Initially, some expatriate medical workers said they couldn’t even get appointments.
Kuwait’s labor system, which links the residence status of migrants to their jobs and gives employers enormous power, is prevalent in the Persian Gulf states. But hostility towards migrants has long raged in Kuwait. The legacy of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to mass deportations of Palestinian, Jordanian and Yemeni workers whose leaders had supported Iraq in the conflict, fueled anxiety about the need for self-reliance in Kuwait that endures today, even as workers from the Southeast Asia rushed to go to fill the void.
A 30-year-old Indian woman who has spent her entire life in Kuwait saw her Instagram account fill with celebratory photos of Kuwaiti teenagers getting hit. His father, a 62-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, could not, like the rest of his relatives who live there.
“All the Kuwaitis I know are vaccinated,” he said. “It’s more than annoying, it’s an understanding that no, this isn’t great, there’s 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. At the time, despite some 238,000 foreigners registering online to book an appointment, only 18,000 of them – mostly doctors, nurses and well-connected workers at state oil companies – were called in to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, some 119,000 Kuwaitis were vaccinated.
Since vaccine information is only available in English or Arabic, advocates say that excludes dozens of low-wage workers from Southeast Asia who don’t speak any language.
The disparity sparked a stormy debate on social media, with users denouncing what they called the latest case of xenophobia in Kuwait. They say the pandemic has magnified resentment towards migrant workers, deepened social divisions and hardened the government’s resolve to protect its own people in the first place. Medical professionals warned that Kuwait’s vaccination hierarchy harms public health.
Compared to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, among the fastest per capita vaccinators in the world, Kuwait’s momentum has lagged. As foreigners wait for vaccines, medical workers say Kuwaiti citizens remain reluctant to register due to vaccine conspiracy theories that are widely shared on social media. Infections have skyrocketed, prompting the government to impose a strict night curfew last month.
With mounting pressure on the Ministry of Health, barriers have eased in recent weeks, and a growing number of foreign residents aged 65 and over reported that they were able to get vaccinated. Still, most expats insist that inequality in access remains striking.
“We are waiting and waiting for the call,” said a 55-year-old house cleaner from Sri Lanka. “The moment I get the call, I’ll go. I need the vaccine to be safe. “
The government has not released a demographic breakdown of foreigners vaccinated versus Kuwaitis since outrage over inequality erupted in mid-February, only general vaccination statistics. As of this week, 500,000 people have received at least one dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca, according to health authorities.
Despite the fact that most front-line workers in grocery stores and cafes remain unvaccinated, Kuwait is making plans to reopen society for the vaccinated. Those who can prove they took the hit will be able to attend schools in the fall, go to theaters in the spring and skip quarantine after flying into the country, the government announced.
Foreign workers in Kuwait have felt this frustration before. When the pandemic first struck, lawmakers, talk show hosts and prominent actresses blamed migrants for spreading the virus.
As the coronavirus swept through crowded districts and dormitories where many foreigners live, authorities imposed targeted closures and released rising virus counts with a breakdown of nationalities. When infections among Kuwaitis increased, the government stopped releasing demographic data.
“It’s easy for migrants to be seen as the root of all the problems in Kuwait,” said Rohan Advani, a sociology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Citizens do not have political or economic power, so when they do not like what is happening in their country, blaming foreigners becomes the main escape route.”
Despite having an open parliament, final power in Kuwait rests with the ruling emir. Kuwaiti citizens, who are guaranteed a place on the public payroll and reap the benefits of a welfare state from cradle to grave, are increasingly demanding policies that limit the flow of migrants.
Earlier this year, the government banned the renewal of visas for expatriates over 60 without a university degree, effectively expelling some 70,000 people, including many who have lived in Kuwait for decades.
“This discrimination is not new to us. The pandemic has just highlighted the worst of it, ”said a 30-year-old Lebanese woman who grew up in Kuwait and whose older relatives are still waiting for vaccines.
“But this is life or death,” he said. “I never thought it would get to this point.”