While most Gulf Arab countries have tackled the coronavirus pandemic through state-led initiatives, Kuwait and Bahrain engaged youth significantly through quasi-independent civil society organizations.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the Gulf Arab states in February and the infection of at least 3,400 Gulf citizens and residents, thousands of millennials have heeded their country’s call and mobilized to help stop the spread of the contagion. Gulf youth have traditionally been supportive of their leadership in difficult times. In almost all of the Gulf Arab countries, tens of thousands of citizens and residents have volunteered to join their countries’ efforts to fight the pandemic. In Saudi Arabia alone, more than 23,000 volunteers signed up on the first day, while 35,000 in Qatar also signed on. Millennials have been serving as doctors and nurses, engineers, photographers, truck drivers, and other logistical services providers. At the same time, social media influencers provided creativeoutreach to raise people’s awareness of the crisis, urging their followers to follow public health guidelines.
In Kuwait and Bahrain, civil society organizations have historically played significant roles, albeit with restrictions. To support the state’s efforts, at least 30 Kuwaiti civil society organizations raised $28 million in one day to assist families impacted by the current crisis. Moreover, associations such as the Kuwait Medical Society and the al-Khaldia Youth Society in Bahrain have recruited thousands of volunteers to serve on the frontlines. Volunteers have worked at quarantine sites, testing sites, and hospitals. Their work has varied from practicing medicine and treating patients, to disinfecting buildings and taking care of logistics. Even as most citizens retreated to their homes, these volunteers took up positions on the frontlines of service.
Prepared for the Moment
In Bahrain and Kuwait, many of the physicians, medics, and nurses in hospitals and quarantine sites tend to be relatively young. “At the beginning, my parents wanted to kick me out and asked me to stay away from them,” said Nouf al-Enezi, 32, a surgeon who volunteered to work with coronavirus cases. “The idea of signing up for this wasn’t appealing to my family due to the threat it posed to me and my family.” Nouf is a team leader working at testing and quarantine sites in Kuwait as part of the Corona Team, a group of physicians volunteering to assist the ministry of health.
According to Nouf, “it was a national duty to serve in such circumstances, especially since we haven’t been through a major crisis since the Iraqi invasion, and I was a kid back then.” She added, “I remember the terrorist bombing of Imam al-Sadeq Mosque in 2015. I volunteered to help dozens of victims but felt useless due to the lack of practical experience at that time. But now I’ve got experience and was appointed as a team leader in the Corona Team.” Right after the virus’ outbreak in Kuwait, Nouf asked to be on the frontlines “to make up for what I couldn’t do in the al-Sadeq incident.”
In Bahrain, Mariam Adem, 26, a physician working at quarantine sites with al-Khaldia Youth Society, said she felt as if she had done seven years of medical school for this moment. Mariam was motivated to serve after the state announced the outbreak of coronavirus, and the country was on the brink of a crisis. “At that time, I felt I had no choice but to go there and serve my people. My goal was to discharge the last patient and make my dad proud,” she said. Mariam works at al-Hidd quarantine site, which is 30 minutes away from her house, “in the middle of nowhere,” she added.
Nouf and Mariam are working eight to 12 hours a day. Their work extends from taking swab tests to checking on patients’ health in general, which makes them more vulnerable to the virus. When asked about their main concerns, they both cited getting infected and transmitting the infection to their loved ones. “My parents would not be able to resist the virus; my mom has a chronic disease (diabetes), and my father is aging,” said Mariam, who was in quarantine with hundreds of people coming from infected countries. In Kuwait, at least 5,000 people were coming to test each day. “But the process was smooth, people in charge were well prepared, the right person was in the right place at the right time, and the ministry had an actual plan,” said Nouf. This example is not unique to Kuwait and Bahrain. The WHO has praised the Gulf Arab countries’ strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Unified Efforts of State and Stateless, Citizen and Expatriate
Nouf and Mariam were surprised by their governments’ efforts to contain the virus. “As someone who had some reservations on our government’s policies, I was shocked by their preparedness and their quick response in preventing the spread of the virus,” said Nouf. In Bahrain, Mariam was fearful of the virus’ outbreak. She believed the health system lacked the resources and expertise necessary to confront the unprecedented challenge. “But the people and the leadership coming together in solidarity gave us hope and was the reason behind our success,” said Mariam. The worst is likely yet to come, however, given that hundreds of Bahrainis are being evacuated from infected countries, especially those stranded in Iran. “We are expecting the cases to double in the next few days,” said Mariam. In addition, nearly 50-60,000 Kuwaitis will be repatriated from different countries. “My biggest fear is the health system being overwhelmed,” said Nouf.
While some citizens promoted a xenophobic, racist narrative against expatriates who were perceived as “bringing the virus,” expatriates were themselves first responders fighting the virus in almost all Gulf Arab countries. “I condemn the xenophobic and sectarian social media campaign against expats and nationals, and as a matter of fact, only a few expats tested positive while the majority were Kuwaitis,” said Nouf. “However, I do believe the government could have done a better job in reaching out to expats through alternative channels that expats are more adapted to.” In Bahrain, Mariam says, “We had Saudis (Qatifis), Egyptians, Asians, and others who were treated as if they were Bahrainis.”
Worthy of mention are the heroic efforts by the bidun (stateless) medics and doctors. At least a half-dozen bidun doctors and medics have been working full time at testing sites in Kuwait. Talal al-Ounan, an unemployed stateless physician who has insisted on serving with the Corona Team since its first day, has been working 10 hours a day without pay. “I volunteered with my brother, Nael, to help our country and its people get through this crisis,” said Talal. “This is my national duty, and I am not seeking personal rewards or credit from anyone,” he added.
While most Gulf countries have managed the crisis directly through state institutions, Bahrain and Kuwait successfully engaged youth through quasi-independent civil society organizations. Employing youth and civil society in the fight against coronavirus demonstrates their capabilities to contribute on a national level and shows how eager millennials are to serve their countries in times of catastrophe. Nouf and Mariam are just two examples of thousands of millennials around the Gulf who have taken to the frontlines to battle this pandemic.
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