Handshakes, hugs and sighs of relief filled the air outside the Intercontinental Katara, in Doha, Qatar. An unusually cool breeze had settled as the Rolex clock on the curbside chimed midnight alongside a row of the seven remaining brand new Jeep Cherokees and Dodges Durangos. The usual exchange of farewells was in full swing. I congratulated the drivers, 7 out of 30 of whom, Najib, Sajid, Suheer, Mustaq, Jyothi, Rogelio and Jameel were present. They told me how they looked forward to their day off, but many worried for the coming days. The peninsula within a peninsula, the State of Qatar had registered 24 active cases of Covid-19 thus far. Schools had already been closed for two days, Jyothi, Mustaq and Najib were assigned to families for school drop offs and pick-ups the following week while the rest of the guys were scheduled to work for an international football tournament the 2022 World Cup hosts were putting in a week’s time. It would be money lost for the Sri Lankan trio. Jameel had the last word however, reassuring us that once the heat returned, Qatar would surely be safe from the virus. As we all normally did back then, I gave them a final cheerio and shook their hands one last time. I woke up the next day having slept more than 4 hours for the first time since February, finished a report and played a game of football that evening. This was the gang of Colombians and Venezuelans, the theme for that night’s game was El Classico, Barcelona fans vs. Real Madrid fans. Following the Blaugrana’s 7-5 victory, tradition at the Doha Sports Park on the outskirts of Lusail stipulated that pints were in order and the losers were paying. Alcohol here is only sold in hotel bars and select sports clubs. This is one of only two places I know were of you can have your lager outside, and for $9.50 USD a pint, it’s a bargain for this country. We were excited for our game against a team of Japanese engineers in two days’ time. We loved welcoming the weekend with a game, the dads in the team would bring their families since the club hosted BBQ on lawn every Friday for Brunch. But the conversation soon turned to the Coronavirus, the songs going viral in Latin America, in particular a Mexican corrido and an excellent Colombian cumbia on the highly infectious phenomena. Carlos and Gio were instructed to work from home by Qatar Petroleum, the Emirate’s largest company. We questioned why on earth would the Qataris close schools if only 24 cases were reported so far, and also had a laugh at hookah loving Javier because it was announced earlier that day hookah bars were closed nationwide. Gustavo couldn’t be with us because he would be on the graveyard shift at the Al Khor Hamad Hospital in the north of the country, a nation so small it takes longer to reach Philly from Goucher than traverse from north to south.
Suddenly, my phone dings, among the jovial mood all I could do was laugh at what I just read, it was the 11th of March, it was still a joke back then… Remember. I passed my phone around, and we all had a smile on our faces, at least it all made sense now. We got used to living in place where you read the paper and it’s all good news, a prime minister resigns and no one bats and eye, in the comment section under most news stories, the same 3 words read in the comment over and over again in different levels of broken English: I love Qatar. The previous post on that news website reported that the Ministry of Interior was taking action on people spreading rumors to prevent “false panic”. That was the norm, but a jump from 24 cases to 238 in one day, that, was not normal. Closing time would arrive eventually, conversation had long since changed to the Champions League the following week and our families back in the New World. I didn’t know as I shuffled my way up the steps in front of my building that it would be the last time I would be outside for anything other than groceries.
As I write this article, I have spent 14 days with my family in self-isolation. I witnessed Qatar shoot up to the top 10 in per capita cases at one point only for the rest of the world to catch up and race past our numbers. In the meantime, bars closed, as did parks. Soon my hopes of cycling outside were canceled too, as the police were given the power to fine people for non-essential travel or time outside. Soon, public transportation followed, restaurants were delivery only, and yet more restrictions were to come. The most impactful decree of all was the closure of mosques a few days before Friday prayers. The comment sections suddenly flooding with indignation, “God would protect us,” some would say. “How could a Muslim country close mosques?” others replied. In a country that is deeply devout it was a shock. Mosques simply do not close. More was to come, in a country where 88% of the population is non-Qatari and where the Indian community alone out numbers the total citizenry by 2 to 1, another decree hit home. As many schools around the world closed, Qatar closed its borders to non-Qatari nationals without warning. All of sudden a lot of students, husbands, wives, partners and other loved ones were separated. Ask any of your parents if you were studying abroad or not home until recently about their anguish, and there lies what my mother has been living the past week and a half. Despite being an ambassador, she is powerless to bring my two brothers home. My father went over there to join them and coordinate their stay in the UK till we find a solution. Thousands of other people can’t return to their homes on the peninsula and thousands more can’t leave because they either fear or can’t afford not being able to come back to the office. But the worst of all is the plight of the working class in this country.
The outbreak surge on the 11th of March originated in a laborer housing camp, where people live with 4 up to 16 people in one room. With conditions ranging from crowded to inhumane. Soon after, in a segregated sector of the country called Industrial Area, where plenty of workers live and where most Qatari manufacturing is based, camps 1 through 32 were turned into a quarantine zone patrolled by police. No one is allowed in or out, an ordinary person can’t drive near it. These workers are most likely not getting paid, they are not allowed to walk around and it’s simply unknown what conditions they are in at the moment. Many employers have sent workers on unpaid leave, exit visas were canceled so people were quite simply repatriated to their home country with whatever money they have had in the moment. Workers are still bused into their workplaces on small crowded buses from their accommodation sites, easily facilitating infection. People are worried, asking for even further restrictions. Workers would like to cease working, but there is World Cup to build here, and nothing will stop construction here for the time being. On other matters, the government has waived rents for businesses for 3 months as well as banks loans for individuals for 3 months. In all of this mess, I have been unable to get in contact with my drivers since the quarantine was imposed. Being here, we get used to an Orwellian way knowing and yet not knowing what on earth is going on. As for Qataris, in a country where reputation, honor and image are held in almost Victorian regard. Qataris returning from abroad are sent to quarantine at the Grand Hyatt, the Hilton, Qatari women are at the St Regis among other five-star hotels in Doha. They are also given the option to spend quarantine at home under certain terms and conditions, first and foremost is not being able to leave their homes. Nevertheless, for the past 3 days the government has publicly shamed and arrested those who break their oaths, publishing almost three dozen names so far. These people could face up to 3 years imprisonment and be fined up to $5,500USD. All for not staying at home!
As for myself, like many of you I am spending a significant amount of time on zoom. While you spend it with your peers and professors, I spend it with my bosses, finishing my report on my last job as Head of Transport for it to end up in a Tournament Transfer of Knowledge document. After that, my next few gigs have been canceled, but I am privileged enough to have a place to stay and very supportive boss helping me find alternative income here. When I am not working, I spend time helping my 13 year old brother with his homework, cooking, and playing Football Manager on my PC. We are worried as a family for my brothers and father in the UK as the situation gets messier there. Overall, I would say we are week ahead than most of the USA in terms of when the crisis began here. But in so many ways this country is much more prepared. With a small population of 2.6 million, the most doctors per capita on earth, universal healthcare for all residents and an authoritarian system that allows for centralized decision making. Her Excellency Lolwah bint Rashid bin Mohmmed al Khater, who is the spokesperson of the Supreme Committee for Crisis Managements hosts a daily press conference announcing various policy changes every day and updating the populace on the patient situation. She inspires confidence and is transparent on the efforts of the country to combat the virus. Updates are published daily on the condition of patients, the number of individuals in intensive care and the total number of recoveries. As I write this article the country has 485 cases, 41 recoveries and so far, no one has died. In the middle of so much uncertainty in the world right now, as a resident here there is a sense of reassurance that this crisis is not politicized. This crisis will be a testing time for western democracies around the globe and its ability to handle pandemic. Freedom will be in conflict with measures that may infringe on the rights of the individual for the sake of the collective. The streets are empty here, the rules are the rules and infection rates have been stabilized. It weird, in contrast to the images of the US last week, or most infuriatingly the images of Mexico right now.
I would like to finish this article however with a message of hope. While I lived in the USA, I witnessed the ability for communities like Goucher to rally for one another. You may not be on campus to see it bloom again on your way to class as the morning dew is scintillating as the sun brings much missed warmth back to that special little place on Dulaney Valley road. But we are still one as a college, in the age of social distancing we may not be not be able to be face to face in the Ath, but your friendships and camaraderie are in the palm of your hand. It’s a testing and usual time and having been away since last May I can’t honestly say I have a gauge of what you must all be feeling right now. My heart goes out to the seniors in particular for whom this crisis couldn’t have been happening at any worse a moment in their college careers. This will still get worse before it gets better, but it will get better. I hope you manage to have a postponed commencement whether it be on a humid summer day or even if it’s snowy muddy scene and it’s blistering cold surrounds us as the warmth of your friends and family surrounding you as you walk up on to that stage. You all deserve that eternal minute on stage, the cathartic moment leading up to you having that bloody diploma in your hands at last! I hope I can be there too, in the audience, cheering you on. As we say here in the Gulf, inshallah (God willing).
By former Goucher student Alex Sanson Gomez ’21
A pint of lager after a pickup game of football. PC: Alex Sanson Gomez