Isolation and indignity: The pandemic is not an equaliser, it’s a discriminator
“It’s just for a few days, you’ll be back to your room in no time,” said the camp official, as he came to escort Jonathan* to the isolation area.
This was basically just the ground floor of one accommodation block within the labour camp, flimsily cordoned off with empty metal lockers placed side by side for the length of the building. One security guard was stationed at the only access point, with only a face mask and occasionally gloves for PPE, and a length of red tape between him and the closest door – some two or three metres away from the more than likely possibility of infection.
Jonathan was among those marked for isolation because of his proximity to a colleague who tested positive for Covid-19. What he thought would be a quick, in and out thing, turned out to be a living nightmare for him & his colleagues.
The room he was moved into had two bunk beds, meaning he had to share the room with three other people. Needless to say, social distancing was not considered, as would be expected in such a situation. This is, after all, the same virus that brought the world to its knees, and, you would think that isolation procedures would be followed to reduce the risk of transmission. Now, I’m no virologist or infectious disease specialist, but that was the logical thing to do, right? But in reality, their wellbeing wasn’t a concern for the company or the client. They later complained about this and the number per room was reduced to three.
Aside from the close quarters, those awaiting swab tests had to use the same washroom facilities as those who had tested positive, increasing their risk of catching the virus. Said facilities were, in fact, not even cleaned, to begin with. They had to endure the unsanitary conditions for a day or two, and it wasn’t until they raised their voice that the washrooms were cleaned. And in this period, by the way, there was no water inside the washroom. So that meant no showers and no flushing of toilets.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was the issue of food. Of all the things the company chose to deny these unfortunate souls, it was most cruel to not give them proper nourishment during this isolation period when they needed it the most. Breakfast was usually two parottas, some vegetable stew, and a boiled egg. Lunch was the same sloppy vegetable stew with rice. Dinner was some subpar, diluted chicken stew with rice, or this meal made from Semolina (for illustration purposes, google Ugali), or rice with some appalling vegetable stew, or rice with two boiled eggs which were somehow fashioned into making some hellish soup. Egg soup? Who does that!? They were never supplied with fruit, and drinking water was never enough, and they had to demand more each day. Imagine being given 1.5L of water to survive on for the whole day. And to aggravate matters, on most days, the food they were served had already gone bad, as was evident in the pungent smell it gave off. So, on some days, they went without eating, as the ‘food’ proved inedible.
Here’s a timeline of the whole thing. On the evening of 20 February, Jonathan and his colleagues were taken into ‘isolation’. They went for their swab test on the afternoon of the 22nd and didn’t get their results, and subsequent freedom, till the afternoon of 28 Feb. Do results really take that long?
An eight-day ordeal, where they faced neglect, where they were exposed to further risks, including infection. Eight days of malnutrition, mistreatment by camp officials, and a deterioration of mental health. Eight days of inaction by the relevant authorities, who I made aware of the situation through a series of tweets. Twitter is a valid medium of contacting authorities, seeing as how everyone is online these days., One institution, PHCC, saw the tweet and never bothered to inquire further.
This eight-day ordeal opened my eyes to how insignificant migrant workers are to the authorities and health institutions. And it’s not like I could call the 16000 hotline and report this. That would mean revealing my identity, which would expose me to retribution. I also couldn’t advise the unfortunate souls to make a formal complaint with ADLSA, as one ILO official ‘advised’ me. This person knew well enough that formal complaints are a no-no because that requires giving up one’s identity as well.
With the ILO being diplomatic, the Ministry of Public Health, the Primary Health Care Corporation, Hamad Medical Corporation, and Qatar Red Crescent Society not wanting anything to do with it, there was nowhere left to turn. In desperation, I even reached out to this well-known public figure, a social media personality who sometimes shows support for human rights, hoping he’d raise awareness, but that was a dead end.
So, there was no option left but for the guards to soldier on for the length of the ordeal. And just like that, all those who conspired to have them in these conditions got away with it. And those responsible for welfare oversight, stood idly by and did nothing – just because the guards, like many other migrant workers, were viewed as having no value whatsoever.
And after getting the results, the following day, on 29 February 2021, they were back to work in their shiny new uniforms at the Msheireb Properties, as if nothing happened.
(These are migrants employed by GSS Certis and contracted to work for Msheireb Properties.)
"There was a phone number on the wall, and we tried calling to complain about the bad food especially, but no one answered. It kept ringing. It was a terrible experience."
Mandatory quarantine on return: Paying for a stay
Yem spoke to MR during her stay at the Mekaines Hotel (often referred to as Mukaynis Quarantine facility) and after her release. The hotel is approved by the Qatar Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), with bookings facilitated through the Discover Qatar website of Qatar Airways Holidays.
Yem had gone home to the Philippines on her annual vacation at the end of last year. She returned in February 2021, and her employer booked and paid QR2400 (US$660) for the 14-day quarantine stay in the facility (video above).
“We arrived late in the night and there were two of us in each room and they gave us fresh sheets. The food they gave was disgusting, but I thought maybe it had gone bad as it was very late. But it happened two or three times during my stay that the food given had gone bad. But even when it wasn’t spoilt, the food was disgusting. We don’t know what the cuisine was but they gave us rice morning, afternoon and night with beans and chicken salona. Some days we got eggs in the morning. The food was delivered daily from outside. We were also given tea and sugar.
“There were no staff or workers in this hotel. We were given one brush for us to clean the place by ourselves. It was really dirty and smelly and we didn’t have enough cleaning material even. We had to use the same sheets for two weeks. There were 16 of us in one building, in eight rooms. The kitchen had a fridge but nothing else, so we could not make anything.
“There was a phone number on the wall, and we tried calling to complain about the bad food especially, but no one answered. It kept ringing. There was no internet*. On the 12th day, they did the Covid test again – the tested us the night we arrived too – and I could leave after the result came as negative.
“It was a terrible experience. My employer was also upset because they paid for this and didn’t want me to live like that.”
*To have internet connectivity is a lifeline for lower-income workers and helps them keep in touch with their family and friends. Few can afford a data connection on their meagre salary
"The routine during the rest of my quarantine was the same. But it affected me badly every passing day. Psychologically I was very weak and a feeling of helplessness taunted me badly. "
Morning siren and the breakfast: Quarantine Diary, Day 2, August 2020
By Nepali Shramik
My eyes opened with the loud sound of the siren. I thought there was some emergency. So, I woke up abruptly. I thought of jumping from the upper layer of my bunk bed, though my body wasn’t in a good enough condition to respond accordingly, even if there was an emergency. Thankfully the last ring of a siren was followed by a loud voice and announcement, “Good morning guys”, “It’s breakfast time” “Prepare your mask” etc. I saw all the patients getting ready and leaving their beds. I had been allotted a bed in the middle of the hall in the last row, on the upper layer of the bunk bed. I could see people lined up at the front door. I also got down from my bed and slowly followed the others.
There were two G4S security guards at the door. They were handing out a small rectangle blue tag to everyone in the queue. I received one too after checking the two paper wristbands (patient identification tag) that the quarantine administrator had strapped on me during the clinical admission process the previous day.
I exited the hall lined with beds and followed the rest to the dining area. The quarantine and dining areas are 200m apart and connected by a narrow corridor, fenced by a chain-link. A locked gate at the end leads to the recreation hall. Once all the patients passed through the gate, the security guard locked the gate and no one was allowed to return to the bed hall for an hour during which time cleaning and sanitisation work would be undertaken.
The staff were mainly from the Philippines and India. The security guards were Africans, Nepalis and Pakistanis. The catering services were outsourced, and meal packs were delivered to the centre. G4S security controlled the logistics. One had to pass through the recreation hall, towards the dining area. At the entrance were two cardboard boxes full of oranges and lemons, and guards monitoring the area.
It was my first day, and I decided to take two oranges, but the security guard rudely told me, “My friend you are not allowed to take two oranges” and another security added, “you can take either one orange or one lemon.” It pinched my heart, a flash of self-pity; I told myself that resource allocation in crisis management should be calculated carefully. I took one orange and moved ahead, dropping my coupon in a small box as I saw the others do. There was another security guard at the entrance door monitoring the coupon drop off.
I entered the dining hall and I saw a pile of small cardboard boxes on two tables. People moved quickly, picking up a box and moving towards the table – it looked so busy, like the bees in a hive. I also took one and moved to a table. I was hungry and eager to get to my breakfast. My excitement shattered within a moment of opening my breakfast box. Two pieces of smashed white bread, two pieces of kuboos, a small pack of jam, a small pack of mix berry juice, two small bottles of water and a South Indian curry. I felt that the quantity of food was acceptable, and decided that this should be fine. I usually like curry and kuboos. I started sipping juice with the plastic straw that came along with the pack, then had the bread and jam, and I planned to eat kuboos and curry last as this is the one that I prefered. As soon as I opened the curry container I sensed a strong stinky masala smell, something that I had never experienced before. I abandoned the lot and walked out with the orange in my pocket that will have to complete my breakfast.
The routine during the rest of my quarantine was the same. But it affected me badly every passing day. Psychologically I was very weak and a feeling of helplessness taunted me badly.
I was expecting that the Covid-19 patients would have a PCR test, but none of us was tested either during the 14-days stay or at the time of release. The clinic was open for two hours in the morning and evening, and emergency cases were treated by the emergency service.
I would have preferred a self-funded hotel quarantine, but I was denied that option because I was a single male worker (‘bachelor’). I felt like I was in jail and that I may not return to normal health. Every evening before I went to bed, I felt I won’t wake up the next morning. I had a high fever and heavy pain as if someone had hammered my chest. Especially when I sneezed, yawned and coughed, I felt my chest was breaking and I blacked out twice. It still haunts me.
I was in the Umm Salal Ali Quarantine facility. The women were in a separate building in the same location. There were more than 500 of us in a big hall and more people in other halls. There was a sufficient number of bathrooms but without a cooling system, so in the height of summer in August, we had to take a shower with scalding water that I felt was another torture all of us had to go through.
I went through a very tough, bad and bitter time; it’s my personal experience, you may have a different one. I have been through and living a very normal life now but I wish this on no one. Not the pain of the infection, or the indignity of such quarantine.