COVID-19 in Bahrain Impacts Migrant Workers

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SEATTLE, Washington — The Bahraini government was quick to enact policies to restrict the spread of COVID-19. As of June 21, there were 5,281 active cases of COVID-19 in Bahrain and 64 deaths due to the virus. However, only 169 individuals were receiving treatment.

 Up to 90% of the active cases of COVID-19 in Bahrain were in migrant work camps due to their dense populations and lack of resources. The Kingdom experienced some success in its mitigation efforts through addressing the health and financial issues that the migrant camps face. The high rates of testing in conjunction with international collaboration to acquire appropriate medical equipment began to put Bahrain on a path towards recovery.

Bahrain’s Response to COVID-19

The virus hit Bahrain relatively early with many of its initial cases stemming from visits to Iran, the regional hub of COVID-19. In response to the early uptake, the government closed schools and enacted restrictions on travel to Iran and the Dubai International Airport, which acts as a major crossroads out of Bahrain. However, the country allowed shops to stay open and became one of the first nations in the world to begin easing lockdown restrictions in early April 2020. A study that Google conducted found that during the first quarter of the year, Bahrain experienced a 21.2% reduction in mobility. Largely due to its more lenient restrictions, Bahrain had the least amount of mobility reduction in comparison to its neighbors.

The island nation relies on migrant labor largely coming from South East Asia and East Africa to help support its growing economy and the camps where these workers live are notorious for their poor conditions. As of 2017, the migrant population of Bahrain was 823,610, making up 55% of the population. Additionally, expatriates made up 79% of the workforce in Bahrain. The dormitories where the workers live have become hotbeds for COVID-19. With the slowdown of the Bahraini economy, most of the migrant workers lost their jobs and turned to charities for food supply, generating long lines which once again exacerbates the risk of spreading the virus.

A coalition of 16 NGOs and trade unions, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, penned a letter to the Minister of Labour & Social Development of Bahrain requesting that the government provide migrant workers with sufficient protections and healthcare, given their increased risk of infection due to their living conditions. The government responded by providing relief to these workers such as urging citizens to reject xenophobia and understand the workers’ cramped conditions.

Policies to Curb COVID-19 in Migrant Camps

The government took the prevalence of the virus in migrant worker camps seriously and implemented numerous policies to curb COVID-19 in Bahrain. The government’s initial response was to relocate 8,011 individuals out of camps and into several different buildings, including closed schools, to lessen overcrowding. The government added to its efforts by publishing a public circular ordering all employers to designate extra accommodations that can hold up 10% of their workforce to better enforce social distancing precautions.

The Kingdom canceled all fines and residence fees migrant workers face to mitigate the financial fallout of the situation. Also, the government pledged to cover migrant workers’ medical expenses due to COVID-19 — a significant step in ensuring the safety of the country’s most vulnerable population. To further financially support migrant workers, the government also vowed to distribute 30,000 hot meals a day to workers seeking food.

Persistent Increase in Cases

Even though the International Organization of Migration applauded the response to COVID-19 in Bahrain migrant camps, new cases are still increasing. Over the past 14 days, Bahrain saw a total increase in cases. The peak occurred on June 8, 2020, with 654 confirmed cases that day alone. Even though total cases continue to increase, the measures to protect migrant workers as well as high testing rates provides optimism for COVID-19 in Bahrain.

Bahrain made testing a priority for its recovery and, as a result, has one of the highest testing rates per 1 million people in the world. More than 470,000 people took tests for COVID-19 in Bahrain. Some of the country’s high testing capacity attributes to its cooperation with nearby countries like China and India. Bahrain imported more than 100 tons of medical equipment from China and India to bolster its mitigation efforts.

Through high levels of testing, focusing on improving migrant worker conditions and international collaboration, Bahrain handling its COVID-19 crisis while also improving the quality of life for its most disenfranchised inhabitants.

 – Garrett O’Brien
Photo: Unsplash

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