Saturday, November 28, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Updates -- Vaccine Hope

Cases are still steady at 150-180 community cases each day, with 40-60 additional cases a day from travelers in quarantine. I wish the cases would lower but they stubbornly stay at the same levels. There have been 1-3 deaths a week but at least the second wave appears to be over in neighbouring Bahrain. Cases loads in other GCC countries are still fairly high.  I don't think it'll really start to go down until a vaccine is circulated.

Which of course is the big news, trials of three different vaccines have completed with great results and now all of the talk is when countries will receive them, how many doses they will get, and how they will be distributed. Talk in Qatar is the country could receive a vaccine in late-December, and a well-connected Qatari that I spoke to says the Government has already drafted up its priority list for who will receive the vaccine. Some people have wondered about whether enough people will take it or not, what if people refuse, etc. but they are thinking like Westerners. If the Qatar Government demands a expat take the vaccine your choices are: do it, have a medical exemption, or leave the country. This place isn't going to play around and cater to anti-vaxxer nonsense. So things could be back to normal soon. I expect February or March but a friend of mine in the medical field figures it'll take longer to get enough of the vaccine to create herd immunity, likely by June or July 2021. So there is still a ways to go.

Meanwhile some people are planning trips to the Maldives thanks to a travel bubble that was set up at two resorts. The resorts are separate islands and will only have guests from Qatar and the staff have already quarantined for two weeks. So you fly from Qatar to the Maldives on Qatar Airways (you have to book the resorts from Qatar Airways), go straight to the resort and stay there, full board. When you fly back to Qatar you don't need to quarantine because you were only at the resort. It's a neat idea and a number of people here are planning trips. Not me though, the minimum stay is five days and I'm not the kind of person who can just sit on a beach for five days. 

No trips for me, I'm staying put. Just need to be careful for a few more months.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Updates - No Second Wave, Unlike Most of the World

 COVID cases are slowly lowering, now most days it is under 200. 30-50 cases are from travellers in quarantine so if you factor those out Qatar is consistently in the 140-170 cases a day now. Testing hasn't slowed down though, 8,000-10,000 tests are done everyday. People are getting tested for any type of flu or cold symptoms, a friend of mine did yesterday when he came down with a cold (he tested negative). With the border shut due to the blockade as long as Qatar keeps quarantining travellers arriving by air, and mandating protective measures like masks and use of the Etheraz app, there shouldn't be a second wave.

I sometimes use COVID statistics to remind people here just how much the Qatari Government has done. Many people do not really grasp just how well Qatar has weathered this storm and how all of its work has kept things from being much worse than it could (and should) have been. We are all aware of the second waves rampaging through Europe, the Middle East, and the US and it's bad. To think a few months ago I was pondering if the EU would put Qatar on its "low-risk" countries list, now Qatar has fewer cases per day (per capita) than most European countries. 

But the US in particular is a shocking comparison. The US is a very large country so while the overall average is scary when you get to looking at individual states you can really see how it is, or was back when the northeast had that devastating first wave.

Qatar is currently at a 4.77% infection rate, only Bahrain is higher. The US is at 3.1%, UK at 1.75% and Canada at 0.7%, but when you look at individual US states, the worst are:

North Dakota: 7.12%

South Dakota: 6.25%

Iowa: 4.84%

Wisconsin: 4.59%

Nebraska: 4.25%

So around 7% of the population of the Dakotas has caught COVID. Wow!

But it's the death rate that is tragic.  Qatar is at 82 per million people, quite low compared to the West. Canada is at 278, UK at 721, France at 619 and Italy, burned in peoples' minds as one of the worst-hit countries, is at 685. So how bad was that initial wave in the US northeast? Here's the top five US States by death rate:

New Jersey: 1,865

New York 1,739

Massachusetts: 1,472

Connecticut: 1,310

Louisiana: 1,298

As far as I can tell all five of those States have death rates higher than any country in the world. New York and New Jersey have nearly triple the death rate of Italy. If Qatar had a similar death rate an additional 5,000 people would have died (currently it is at 232 dead).

Qatar quelled the pandemic and treated everyone in hospital for free. It does deserve recognition for its efforts.



Saturday, October 31, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Update - Still the Same

Nothing has changed much, still hovering around 200 cases a day, travel restrictions and quarantines still in place. No new restrictions added. It could definitely be worse, other GCC countries experienced a second wave and the number of cases and deaths went up. Qatar has been spared that at least. Lots of the detected cases are from travellers returning to Qatar and sitting in quarantine, some days up to 40 cases are from travellers. Goes to show how prevalent the virus is in the world and how if you fly anywhere there is a reasonable chance someone on the plane will have COVID. Flying is still risky.

Yesterday marked a milestone, Bahrain passed Qatar for most detected cases per capita in the world (well, except the micronation of Andorra). Qatar no longer has that unfortunate title. With so many other nations having a second, or third, wave if Qatar can keep the restrictions in place and keep things to 200 cases a day or lower then Qatar will drop down the "most cases per capita" list fast. To reach Qatar's total though the US would need 15m cases (currently it's at 9m) but let's face it, many nations did not do enough testing and their reported numbers are lower than the actual. 

My life is reasonably normal now. I go to the office, meet with friends occasionally, went to the beach with some people the other day. I wear a mask always but outdoors almost no one else does. Malls and office buildings are still quite strict but shops on the street less so. Went to the mall yesterday and it was very crowded, more than I was expecting. I wasn't comfortable with that so I got a coffee to go and soon left without going grocery shopping like I planned. I figured back in June COVID would be mostly over by now in low-risk areas like Europe, boy was I naive. Multiple waves follows the pattern of the last major pandemic, the 1918 'Spanish Flu', which had three distinct waves, so I suppose there was no reason to think only one wave was going to happen this time. It's not like the world did something extraordinarily different from 1918 to stop the pandemic. We can only count our lucky stars that the mortality rate is a lot lower than initially expected. Remember when it was first going around China the mortality was thought to be as high as 3-4%. It looks like it is more around 0.3-0.5%, though we will not know for sure unless we figure out exactly how many people ultimately were infected. 

The other excitement of the day is the current uproar the Muslim world has with France, given comments by Macron and others. Lots of people here are boycotting French products and on social media I see lots of information being shared about which brands and shops are French. Most (not all though) of my Muslim friends are boycotting but non-Muslim expats don't appear to be too concerned about it.

As for the US Election the general view is 'meh'. No one is too fussed about it, Qatar has its own problems to worry about (COVID, oil prices, blockade, lack of travelling) so while everyone is aware it's happening, I don't think anyone is thinking much about what would happen afterwards. I can't wait for it to be over though, getting so sick of seeing it dominate all the news.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Updates -- Under 200 Cases a Day

It's been a while since I posted -- I'm wondering if people thought I came down with COVID!  No, I'm fine, I have not been ill. Just a lot of work and stuff keeping me busy.

For the most part Qatar was holding steady at 200+ cases a day, and the occasional death, but the number of cases was slowly creeping down and for the last four days it has been under 200 cases a day, which is great.  Maybe the long consistency of 200+ cases was due to the schools opening.

Today was 194 cases but the Government statistics notes that 14 cases are from returning travelers in quarantine so the number of community cases is 180. It's an improvement but people need to stay vigilant about masks and so forth, there are currently 377 people in hospital, and of those 59 are in ICU, so the virus is still making a lot of people seriously ill. The number of active cases is around 2800, which is roughly what one would expect from 200 cases a day over two weeks, and a far cry from the peak when Qatar was getting over 2000 cases A DAY!

Qatar is doing much better than other Gulf countries who are reporting large numbers of cases (Bahrain, UAE) or deaths (Saudi, Oman). The Government still has strict entry controls and quarantines in place.

But 200-ish cases a day means that slowly, but surely, the virus is spreading. Gone are the days when no one knew someone who had the virus, now almost all my friends know somebody (relatives, friends, co-workers) who caught it. In my office at least three people have had it (no deaths thankfully). Does this mean people have become more careful? Nope! I am the only one wearing a mask at a majlis or when visiting friends. It is stricter in malls and restaurants though. My fear is that it will take someone close getting the virus before people take things seriously again. My fear is finding out there was a "super-spreader" event at a majlis and suddenly many of my friends and their families fall ill.

I was hoping to travel this November-December to somewhere but alas that just doesn't seem likely anymore. I was too optimistic about the virus diminishing and there being no second wave.

Stay safe everyone. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Updates - Still no Second Wave, but not Reducing Either

This week saw the daily number of cases stay steady in the 200s. Schools started so we will see if next week that will lead to a second wave. Many countries in the world, especially in Europe, are dealing with a huge increase in cases but so far in Qatar that hasn't happened yet. I spoke to someone that I know in the public medical field here and they told me most of the cases appeared to be Qataris and white-collar expats, with a lot of spread amongst families. They don't see as many blue-collar expat cases as before. This means an increased likelihood of the virus spreading in schools, most blue-collars workers do not have their families here so daily cases are more likely to reach children.

Is there any reason to trust the data from the Government? I think so. Remember Qatar has the highest per capita number of detected cases in the world, currently at 4.3% of the population. The next highest rate is Bahrain at 3.4% (UK is at 0.5%, US at 1.9%, Canada at 0.35%). If Qatar was fudging numbers to "look good" they wouldn't be reporting such a large number of cases, Qatar could have reported a quarter of the cases and people would have believed it.

Nowadays for COVID-19 stats I go to, which updates information as they receive it. You can report information as long as you cite a source -- in the last few months I sent them updates based on Government presentations and the website was updated within 15 minutes. They also have charts/graphs for every country and examining them shows interesting trends.

Qatar has a solid bell curve when the first wave hit in May-June, which then tapers off to where we are today, roughly 200-300 cases a day.

The deaths follow a similar pattern, with a 2-4 week delay from the peak.

But when you look at Saudi Arabia, you see a similar bell curve for cases:

But not for deaths, which have barely reduced:

That the death rates have not significantly decreased is odd given the dramatic drop in daily cases. It indicates a problem with the data, either Saudi is not detecting cases well anymore or they might be counting deaths as COVID-19 related when perhaps they are not.

Bahrain has entered a second wave -- daily cases are now worse than ever (and on a per-capita basis nearly seven times worse than Qatar):

And the deaths are starting to pick up as well. Sadly the country passed Qatar in total deaths this week, despite having roughly half the population.

Kuwait never appeared to get a handle on things, daily cases have been steady since mid-May:

But look at the deaths:

I am guessing Kuwait wasn't detecting many of the COVID-19 cases back in May-June as the death rate then was much higher than it is now, despite the detected number of cases not decreasing significantly. Per capita case rate is also more than double Qatar's right now so it's hard to say if Kuwait is in the beginning of a second wave since the first wave never seemed to taper off.

Finally Oman. I don't know what happened here, it appears in August they stopped publishing frequent case data because the information suddenly becomes sparse:

But look at the deaths!

Is it a second wave? It's hard to say, the big spikes occur after a gap in data, it's possible that Oman is reporting all of the deaths over the period, so you have data for 3-5 days in one go.

So Qatar's data seems to follow an expected cases to deaths pattern, whereas with some of the other nearby countries it can be a bit more problematic. I don't see any reason to mistrust the Qatar data at this time.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Coronavirus Updates and a Huge Change to Employment Rules

What I was worried would be a post-Eid spike in COVID-19 did not occur, thankfully. All through the month cases held steady but slowly decreased from the upper 200s a day to the low 200s, it was even under 200 a couple of days ago. A slight decrease yes but overall I would say it was steady through the month. Deaths are 2-3 a week now instead of every day. There's still over 60 people in ICU though. The Ministry has added a new statistic about how many of the new cases are from travelers in quarantine, which is around 10-12 a day, so the number of community cases is actually at or just below 200 a day now.

The Government was not entirely happy with how things have developed so decided not to go completely to Phase 4 of removing lockdown restrictions today. Some restrictions were removed but others remain so I guess we moved to Phase 3-and-a-half. The Government hopes to move to phase 4 in a couple of weeks. The Metro opened today but at 30% capacity, and offices are still at maximum 80% of staffing. Spa/massage services are still closed.

Unfortunately part of phase 3 travel restrictions was that Qataris coming in from low-risk countries could self-quarantine at home for a week. Months ago when self-quarantine was allowed many Qataris would ignore it and the Government would arrest them. And guess what's happening now? Arrests for breaking quarantine! Five yesterday, four the day before. Some people don't learn.

I think the Government is being cautious as it is waiting to see what happens with the opening of schools. This was the other area that I was concerned could lead to a second wave, face-to-face schooling. Schools opened today so we'll see what happens over the next two weeks.


In non-COVID news the Government announced a big change to labour laws, raising the minimum wage slightly but, more importantly, removing the requirement for a No Objection Certificate ('NOC') to change jobs.

Most workers in the Middle East are foreigners and it can be expensive for an employer to bring workers. Flights, visas, and so forth add up, usually to thousands of dollars. So employers were concerned about spending a bunch of money to bring people in, only to have them start job-hunting when they arrive and change jobs as soon as they get a better offer. Also a business could save money by poaching staff from competitors, just wait for someone else to spend the money bringing workers then offer those workers a slightly better salary to move to you. To protect against that the NOC system was created, for the first X years of employment (I think two in Qatar) the employee cannot change jobs without receiving an NOC from the employer. Unfortunately this system gave the employers a lot of power over employees, many of whom went into debt in their home countries to pay an agency for the job so now they can't afford to leave. Result: employees who can't leave an abusive employer. The NOC is a key part of why there are problems with workers in the Gulf being unfairly treated.

So Qatar will be removing the NOC, allowing workers to give a months notice (might be two, it depends on how long you worked for the employer) then leave for another job. It's a great step for workers' rights. However I suspect implementing this is not going to be all rainbows and unicorns as now the country will have to deal with staff immediately leaving or competitors poaching. But that is an issue for the companies, and a company was underpaying workers or treating them poorly they deserve to have them leave and be stuck with costs. In the long-term, after the initial 'growing pains' it should result in improvements for workers in terms of salary and treatment and I hope it results in significant improvements for low-paid workers. I am sure other countries in the Gulf will be closely watching how this develops, as will Human Rights groups.

The exact this will occur depends on when the new law is gazzetted, H.H. the Emir signed it though.

Stay safe everyone.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Qatar Coronavirus Updates -- No Second Spike (so far)

It has been three weeks since Eid ended and there has been no evidence of a sharp increase in cases. Things are holding steady at around 230-290 cases a day, it could be better but at least it hasn't become worse. Unfortunately people here are being pretty laid-back about it now, in March when over 200 cases was first reported it was a huge deal and people were very concerned, now people are just going on with their lives. At least restaurants and malls are still strict about mask wearing and temperature scans. Most restaurants aren't open for dine-in either, take-away and delivery is standard for almost all of them now but many do not allow you to eat inside. 

While there was talk of the Government delaying moving to Phase 4 (currently scheduled for September 1st) there have been no announcements. I realize it has been almost six months but people need to still take things seriously. There are still hundreds of people in hospital, over 60 in ICU, and people are still dying from the virus. Until such time as there is a vaccine precautions are always going to be needed. Today was around 280 cases, or about 100 cases per 1,000,000 people. It doesn't seem like a lot but that is higher than most countries. Yesterday the UK reported 19 per million, Spain 78, Canada 7, and in the US, which everyone considers to be a complete basket case of COVID, it was 134. The population of Qatar is roughly the same as the city of Vancouver and if Vancouver reported over 200 cases a day they'd be shutting things down.

The Government is hopeful for a vaccine by the end of the year and is already planning the acquisition and distribution should one be available. I am a bit skeptical of something by the end of the year, especially if it is that vaccine announced out-of-the-blue by Russia.