The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Kuwait can first be seen through the way in which Kuwait’s economy was substantially affected by the pandemic. Oil exports make up 90% of the country’s GDP, but COVID-19 had a huge impact on oil demand, leading to a large drop in revenue. During the pandemic, oil prices fell to a 17-year low and the oil export revenue fell by half in 2020 as compared to the previous year.
Further, lockdown measures impacted supply chains of goods and services and affected different industries and sectors including “restaurants, retail, tourism and transport.” Lockdowns also impacted businesses, with many SMEs experiencing a large decrease in revenues while suffering increased costs of doing business. Job losses affected employees and consumers experienced higher prices.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Bidoon
Levels of poverty among non-citizens in Kuwait are high, despite the poverty rate in Kuwait being close to zero. Citizens, who make up roughly 30% of the population, have access to “free health care, education and housing,” as well as government employment and extensive subsidies.
Non-citizens, by contrast, often work in the informal sector and do not have access to state services. A specific subset of non-citizens are “Bidoon” meaning “without nationality” in Arabic. Despite having resided in the country before or since its independence in 1961, the government regards them as illegal foreigners and has not granted them nationality, so they are stateless.
The poverty rate among the Bidoon is high. Without nationality, they cannot access the formal job market. In a study, 24% of Bidoon interviewed reported job loss due to COVID-19, with 26% suffering major economic hardship, such as inability to pay rent and medical fees, and limited funds for food. Further, 14% percent reported living in worse living conditions, with landlords evicting 8% from their homes. In terms of humanitarian relief during the pandemic, 61% reported that the government had not considered their needs.
This was due to a requirement to register with one’s civil ID, meaning that government aid was inaccessible to the Bidoon. The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Kuwait was therefore higher among this community.
Education and Health Care
The pandemic also greatly affected children. Stateless children must attend fee-paying schools, as opposed to state-funded schools and during the pandemic, students were not able to log into the online system to take exams, as they could not provide their identification document number, according to SALAM DHR and ISI report.
Further, according to the same report, stateless people were barred from accessing testing and treatment and hospital entry due to lack of legal status and were excluded from social services. Moreover, stateless people often, despite their conditions, did not seek hospital treatment as they believed that they would be refused treatment. Online registration for the COVID-19 vaccination also proved difficult, due to a lack of an identity number.
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Kuwait was therefore wide-ranging among the Bidoon community, affecting a wide range of rights and services.
COVID-19 Impact on Migrant Workers
In March 2020, the state asked all non-essential government workers to stay at home. This particularly affected non-Kuwaitis, the government only employs 4.7% of the expatriate, according to LSE.
Many migrant workers found themselves unemployed, without any means of income and surviving on little food. Further, many were not eligible for the government unemployment insurance scheme. This also affected the families of these workers back home, many of whom depended on the remittances that they received, according to LSE.
Many domestic workers were unable to leave the country and were confined to their employer’s homes due to lockdown restrictions, as a result of the kafala system which ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers. Others lost their employment visas and were at risk of deportation, according to Middle East Institute (MEI).
Further, migrant workers were at increased risk of COVID-19 due to their living conditions. Many work in the construction sector, living in overcrowded, unsanitary camps or dormitories, with little opportunity for social distancing, UNDP reports. Migrant workers were also more vulnerable to COVID-19, with expatriates being twice as likely to need emergency COVID-19 care, according to MEI.
Positive Initiatives During the Pandemic
The en.v Initiative, an NGO “dedicated to building community resilience and civil society capacity” in Kuwait, organized a coordinated response, according to MEI. This has delivered community-level initiatives such as ASWATNA, which empowers youth to shape their education needs.
Its COVID-19 response involved local migrant community organizers, human rights activists, health care professionals, private sector executives and representatives from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), MEI reports. The goal was to implement a COVID-19 response, guided by the expertise and experience of local community leaders.
Further, volunteer groups delivered food aid door-to-door to those who had been unable to register. These food packages were tailored to the recipients’ cultural preferences. This initiative also reached non-Arabic and non-English speakers, through registration with community organizers.
According to MEI, other organizations such as Trashtag changed their mission from beach clean-ups, to food delivery. They developed a shared database of recipients, streamlining logistics and ensuring efficient use of funds. They were able to deliver food to around 500 households in three months and observed during the visits the lack of access to clean water. Trashtag then funded the installation of new water filters in houses, to avoid the distribution of environmentally unsustainable water bottles.
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Kuwait, therefore, manifested in multiple different ways, having the greatest impact on non-citizens who are more marginalized during normal times, thus driving a disadvantaged proportion of the population into further poverty.
– Ottoline Spearman