Anyone else get the feeling that 2020 is taking the piss!? We are less than 3 months in and already we’ve had Megxit, Brexit and now Covid-19. We all started January 1st with so much optimism for the new decade but looks like the universe had other plans. There isn’t anyone in the world that isn’t aware of the global pandemic that is currently causing havoc but what some people may not know is that this random corner of the desert is in lockdown. It’s certainly an unique experience in my expat journey and one I am sure we won’t be forgetting in a hurry. It is also a personal experience, as in all my posts these are my ramblings and others may not share my view or emotions. Yet, whilst I can’t help but chuckle at the irony that this dry state is fighting a virus named after a beer, I have to say yet again, I am sat in the Middle East feeling safer than I would at home.
The perception that, the Middle East and specifically Kuwait, are miles behind the western world couldn’t be more wrong. We, like most of the country, were away for the Liberation break. We were enjoying the Omani sunshine, when Kuwait announced they were air lifting nationals out of Iran, due to the escalating corona situation. Within hours they had commandeered an empty hotel and resort far south, away from most residential areas, and turned it into a state of the art quarantine facility. The evacuated nationals where taken straight there and monitored almost as soon as they hit the ground. The cases slowly started to rise, but we knew it was only those in quarantine that were currently at risk. Kuwait were doing all the right things.
As we neared the end of the trip, Iran and Italy’s numbers sky rocketed and more countries were registering cases. Kuwait took no chances and announced that schools would be closed for a period of 2 weeks. We boarded the plane home and continued with our airport/travel hygiene regime but we knew the world had changed. 80% of the plane were wearing masks, gloves and some even surgical hats! It looked like the apocalypse was coming but I was still calm…….at this a stage.
Thermal imaging and lots of hand sanitizer stations greeted us home and it was apparent that this was being taken seriously and the powers at be where taking no chances. Life continued pretty much uninterrupted for a week and apart from obsessively washing my hands and seeing how many things I could do with my elbows, they extended the school closure until the end of March. So my social life was on hold but general life wasn’t and I continued doing what I always did. Then things started to change, on what seemed like a daily basis. Visas were suspended, initially only from a few countries, then a blanket ban. Flights were being halted from high risk areas and some nationalities being refused entry at all. Then Wednesday afternoon it started to get serious and my nerves began to rise.
Browsing through Twitter I saw a tweet from the Ministry of Health, asking ALL expats that had arrived in the country from a specific date, to go to an exhibition centre on an allocated day (by residential district) for monitoring and testing. Suddenly my phone blew up. I was getting Whatsapp messages from everyone, questioning whether this was true. I messaged Hubs who said work were trying to gain some clarification on whether this was “official” My issue was that it was only questioning expats, not Kuwaitis, and this would be going against everything that W.H.O were recommending. Why would you gather tens of thousands of people in one place? Yes it was well organised and they were obviously trying to make sure that the virus wasn’t in the general public, but all this did was freak me and a lot of other people out. Result….Panic attack number 1
Hours later, the official stance changed and that monitoring became more country specific, albeit Kuwaitis were still exempt. Then around 7pm social media went nuts. Loads of local sites were posting about Kuwait. What was happening? I checked all the local ministry and national news agency posts and sure enough something had happened, but it was all in Arabic. My heart was racing, we know something serious has been announced but trying to find a credible source with english translation can be a real issue here. There is a lot of fake news, making a headline full of ambiguity, rumours start and Arabic non speakers are told a different story. Stress at this point was extremely high. Finally, we get the official confirmation in English.
- All flights would be suspended in and out in 48 hours. Only Kuwaiti nationals would be allowed to enter the country up to midnight Friday.
- Public holiday called for 2 weeks – no work in the public sector and private sector essential only.
- No gatherings
- Restaurants, cafes, halls, cinemas, closed
- Banks and schools closed
We were on lock down. Of course, what followed was a mass rush to the supermarkets as people panic bought and stocked up for the long stay. After queues of people caused mayhem and shelves were emptied of everything, more announcements came that supermarkets would remain open and restaurants would operate take away only service. That’s sometimes the issue here, announcements are made that aren’t entirely clear with a blanket message, when the reality is that there are exceptions and rationale. People rushed to make flight changes to leave, if they needed to get to kids at boarding schools or simply didn’t want to remain in this scenario. We were about to enter weeks of weirdness.
Hats off to Kuwait, they have been quick, decisive and organised. They are doing everything they possibly can to keep everyone safe and mitigate the spread of the virus. In fact as they took this stand (even cancelling Friday prayers which in a Muslim country is a massive step), other GCC countries have since followed with stricter sanctions and credit where its due they know what they are doing. The only issue I have is that the communication, whilst frequent it’s firstly always in Arabic (obviously) and English or other languages aren’t always immediately (if at all) available, which is unnerving when rules are constantly changing. We don’t get any assistance or updates from the British Embassy, past Facebook posts giving you links to all the local ministry sites, who all post in Arabic. I naively thought they may reach out in a bit more on social media with some helpful, reassuring information for its nationals, even if its just to translate comms. In times of uncertainty I personally would like to be armed with more information than none.
A Corona website has now been set up so you can see the cases, critical and recovered stats 24/7 and any news announcements. A dedicated 151 health helpline was set up and serviced 30,000 calls over the weekend, plus a separate symptom line for those concerned. They eventually put out some great informational graphics in Urdu, Tagalog and Bangla to help the whole community be informed, I just wish this had happened sooner.
I am safe. My risk of exposure is no greater, in fact its now lessened thanks to the quick response but it’s a weird scenario to be in. I had no immediate travel plans, no huge social events to attend but they fact that that choice is gone makes me feel uneasy. It’s the right thing that we are on lockdown but being thousands of miles away from loved ones, being isolated from the normal routines of life, its causing me a lot of anxiety. It is of course completely irrational, as I am safe and probably safer than a lot of places in the world right now, but feelings of being trapped are never good for ones psyche.
As in most moments of crisis, people rally. Friends are checking in on each other via Whatsapp or calls. My mum is FaceTiming and talking her 39 year daughter off a ledge, whilst acting on her own social distancing notification from the Jersey government. Hubs is coping well with my occasional freak outs, working out with me each morning to calm my nerves. A local yoga studio has been live streaming classes every day, to keep the community connected and give us all a calming resource we can tap into. People care, THIS country cares (even if it seems discriminatory at times in its efforts) they are doing a good job and I just need to remember that the world is not ending, its just going to be a little F’d up for a while.