Nepalis quarantined in Qatar
Qatar is one of the most popular overseas destination for Nepali workers, and because of that the Gulf state’s strict measures to stop the spread of coronavirus has had a direct impact on Nepal’s economy.
On 9 March Qatar banned the entry of nationals from 14 countries including Nepal, and at least 2,000 Nepali workers in the country have been quarantined. The restriction has also affected Nepal’s economic activities beyond labour migration.
Kalyan Ghimire’s company Al Saman used to export three consignments of agriculture produce by air to Doha every week, but that business has ground to a halt since the ban on passengers and cargo.
"We had just received an order for 5,000 kg of strawberries from Qatar, and had sourced them from a farm in Kakani, but the order was cancelled,” Ghimire says. The company also exported vegetables and even gundruk which is in high demand from Nepalis in the Gulf state.
Ghimire had also just started exporting Nepali bottled water from Rasuwa to Qatar, and sent especially packaged 480 bottles for test marketing in Doha to compete with Evian and other brands. However, the COVID-19 scare has put an end to that experiment as well.
Ghimire was part of a 40-member team of government officials, entrepreneurs and farmers taking part in the Agriteq 2020 in Doha from 18-22 March, but the trade fair has been called off.
“Such ups and downs are to be expected in any business, and I try not to lose sleep over this as it is beyond my control, but let’s hope we can resume exports,” says Ghimire, who credits Qatar’s ambassador to Nepal Yousuf Bin Mohamed for getting Nepali exporters to diversify their product range.
Only Qatar Airways still flies Kathmandu-Doha after Nepal Airlines and Himalaya Airlines both suspended operations between the two capitals after the travel ban. Qatar airways is still carrying transit passengers via Doha to and from Kathmandu and Europe/North America.
Ghimire's son Saman who is based in Qatar and manages the business there returned to Nepal earlier this week. "I did not want to be trapped in Qatar as business is down, likely till the end of April, so I managed to get out before the flights got canceled," he says.
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The Qatar Government's travel ban and Nepal's decision to stop issuing labour permits to all destinations including Qatar has put thousands of Nepalis in Qatar as well as in Nepal in limbo. Some 40,000 Nepali individuals who were set to go to Qatar to start employment are stuck in Kathmandu. An unknown number of workers in Nepal on vacation from Qatar are also stranded here, with concerns about their visas or work permits expiring.
There are 401 COVID-19 cases in Qatar with four recoveries, and there are supposed to be about 2,000 Nepali workers who have been quarantined. On Wednesday there was a spike of 238 new cases in Qatar was related to quarantined expat workers but details on nationalities have not been revealed.
COVID-19 has not distinguished between nationals and expats, politicians and those at the lower rungs of the ladder or between rich and poor. But workers in camps neither have the luxury of social distancing nor the opportunity to work from home.
"There is definitely a sense of fear among workers,” says Mahesh Nepal, who has been working in Qatar for five years. “There is increased surveillance in the labour camps, and all workers have to undergo tests before and after work each day. Mobility has been restricted and authorities including emergency response teams are on call at all times."
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Migrant workers have benefited from the strong health infrastructure and containment efforts in Korea, Malaysia and the Gulf that together have about 1.5 million Nepalis. The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic goes beyond health to Nepal’s economy.
As the top destination for Nepali workers in 2018/19, Qatar is important for Nepal’s remittance-based economy. Doha is also an important aerial gateway for tourist traffic and the Nepali diaspora, and any further flight curtailments will have consequences for Nepal beyond migration.
The Saudi and UAE blockade of Qatar for the past two years has actually helped the country become more self-reliant and bolstered its capacity to deal with the epidemic. In addition, Qatar has announced a $23 billion stimulus package to help the private sector weather the crisis.
Says Mahesh Nepal: “The impact of the pandemic on the Qatar economy could have been worse due to external disruptions on supply chains or imports.”