Overcoming Isolation: Migrants, Connectivity, and Covid-19 in Qatar
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the attention on Gulf migrant workers has focused on their vulnerability to exposure to the virus as well as the financial hardship they face as a consequence of altered work situations. Both of these are and will remain important issues, and just as Covid-19 has reshaped all our lives beyond our health and our wallets, it has done the same to migrant worker communities. Caught in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency and living under lockdowns and curfews, migrants across the Gulf have seen their work routines disrupted and also their personal lives.
Migrants frequently rely on locally based informal networks of friends and relatives, co-national or religious groups, and community welfare organizations for friendship, camaraderie, and assistance with navigating daily life in the Gulf. With the onset of the pandemic and strict social-distancing regulations, these networks no longer function as they once did. Migrants often suffer from an inequality of access to digital technologies, and this has a significant impact on their socioeconomic outcomes as well as levels of social inclusion.
Migrant communities lack adequate physical access to digital tools as well as the skills and knowledge to use them appropriately. Lower-income migrants do not have the financial resources to pay for expensive services such as broadband networks. The impact of these various dimensions of digital inequality is currently magnified, as the only way for migrants to maintain their local and long distance networks is via digital means. Through the following six ethnographic vignettes that offer nuanced everyday experiences of a subset of Qatar’s migrant workers, this paper highlights how migrants are attempting to overcome isolation during Covid-19.
Ever since Qatar’s lockdown began, Sonam* falls asleep most nights to Shahrukh Khan’s face shining up at her from her phone screen. Like many of us these days, Sonam is coping with reoccurring bouts of insomnia and boredom and therefore is increasingly dependent on her phone as a means of alleviating both. Sonam left Nepal six years ago to work at a beauty salon in Doha. The company employs 127 women, most of whom come from Nepal and the Philippines. These women earn between 1500 and 2000 Qatari riyals (QR = USD $400-550) a month, which is usually supplemented by the service tips they receive from satisfied customers. The women live together, three to a room, in housing provided by their employers.
Since March 13, when Covid-19 restrictions led to the temporary closure of many businesses, Sonam and her colleagues have, for the most part, been confined to their living quarters. By the end of April, with no work (and no tips), their financial anxieties escalated. The company owners informed them that they were unable to continue paying salaries. From May onwards, each woman has received and will continue to receive a monthly food allowance of just 500 riyals. The company hopes to pay the women the salaries they are owed once business operations resume. This news triggered a host of concerns, both immediate and long term. How could families back home be supported if no wages are coming in? How long would these salary reductions continue? And, most importantly, when will things go back to “normal?”
With nothing to do with their time, most of the women stay up late at night, on their phones, on social media, speaking to friends and relatives. Sonam regularly stays up well into the early hours of the morning, WhatsApp messaging with friends and family, and IMO calling her husband, who works as a security guard in Dubai. Finally, when all else fails to put her to sleep, she turns to the trusted comfort of a Hindi movie. The building she lives in generally has good Wi-Fi, although Sonam does occasionally buy additional data so that she can stay in touch with her family during times when internet connectivity and speed are limited or slow. She is worried about the ongoing strain of living in Doha without work, but less so about her personal exposure to the virus. She tries to stay philosophical about the situation, knowing that her children are safe and happy in Pokhara with her mother, and that, so far, her husband still receives his full wages in Dubai.
The virus and this period of forced confinement has complicated Sonam’s social relations with her roommates and colleagues. Prior to the pandemic, the nature of these women’s work prompted a degree of healthy (and sometimes not so healthy) competition between them. Sonam used to feel an absence of camaraderie at work. The women tended to vie for tips and bonuses, jealously guarding their individual relationships with favored clients. When she made the effort to improve her skills and was recognized for it by her supervisor, she felt that her co-workers were resentful. Nowadays, the competitive tensions in the group seem to have receded—the pandemic appears to have softened the edges of the women’s single-minded focus on individual success. Recently, Sonam has been learning how to cut hair via YouTube videos, and her roommates have been good-humored and supportive of her efforts.
Covid-19 is bringing subtle changes to the women’s daily interactions as they spend more time in each other’s personal spaces, rather than just at work, where they are driven to outperform each other. The women are also bound by common anxieties, living through the unusual circumstances brought about by the pandemic. This seems to be propelling new forms of cohesion and solidarity, but Sonam is not entirely convinced that these will last beyond the crisis. When things go back to “normal,” so will the group dynamics, she assumes, when individual pressures and needs will once again trump the sense of a common good.
Millie also notices some changes in her social relations since Covid-19 came to Qatar. She has worked as a kitchen service provider for a large company since she first arrived in Doha from the Philippines. For almost three years now, Millie has brought the same people in her office their hot coffees and teas throughout the day. While no one has been deliberately unkind to her, there has been a formality and a certain distance in most of her work encounters. At the office there are only a handful of people who have made the effort to really speak to her, or to do more than exchange basic pleasantries.
But now, things are different. Since the lockdown began, Millie has found that people from her workplace who were usually “always busy” are now reaching out, calling and messaging her, asking how she is and what she is doing. The conversations are different in both tone and tenor. Rather than making her the recipient of their concern and asking how she was coping in these strange times, the supervisors/managers/white-collar staff often share their own experiences of coping with the sudden disruption to their lives. Millie finds comfort in these sudden connections and friendships with those from her workplace, though she is also unsure of whether these unexpected Covid-friendships are sustainable beyond the current health crisis.
“Millie is making the best of an otherwise lonely and stressful situation, seeking ways to counter and override the consequences of her physical isolation.”
Emotional connections are extremely important to Millie in the midst of her new reality, which is reflected in her recent artistic pursuits. Since March, Millie found her work life come to standstill and her mobility restricted to her housing complex. She and the three Filipina women with whom she shares a room have kept themselves occupied and distracted by painting the sights and experiences that they long for and miss. Couples holding hands, friends walking along Doha’s beaches—images of intimacy and friendship that have disappeared from everyday life—are what Millie finds comfort and consolation in, as she paints and relives these pre-pandemic moments. While her art is an outlet for what she feels deprived of, in her day-to-day routine Millie tries to stay determinedly positive. In the midst of the challenges of coping with bad internet connections and worries over the rising costs of living, Millie says a positive attitude is essential. She feels she has something to be grateful for as she still receives her full salary and is paid on time, which is not the case for many of her colleagues.
Even with limited Wi-Fi in her accommodation, Millie stays connected with her friends and family on social media. In addition to painting, her daily routine is made up of long hours of sleep, shared meals with her roommates, short bouts of exercise indoors, and daily calls with her mother back home. The pandemic was a “wake-up call” for Millie to invest in the long-distance relationships that she used to take for granted. Before Covid-19 and the lockdown, she barely had the time to call her mother. She was busy at work, or too exhausted at the end of the workday and just needed to cook, eat, and rest when she got back to her room. But now she doesn’t go a day without calling her mother.
Having lived and worked in Qatar over the past few years, Millie found, in retrospect, that her family ties had begun to slacken. She felt detached from her family—both because of the physical distance, but also because of the accumulation of her new experiences in Qatar. Since the lockdown she has been able to re-establish closeness and intimacy with her mother and other relatives back home. This has not been easy given the limited Wi-Fi access and the high cost of buying data. Millie says that at certain points of the day, the Wi-Fi connectivity in her room is better than at others, and this is when she calls home. Millie is making the best of an otherwise lonely and stressful situation, seeking ways to counter and override the consequences of her physical isolation.
For Hamza and for many of his friends, the search for a solution to their Wi-Fi woes is an ongoing effort. While he has always used social media platforms to stay in touch with his wife, son, and parents in Uganda, the internet has now taken on a much more important role in his life since the lockdown began and other forms of social life have disappeared. Unfortunately, Hamza’s access to the internet is far from ideal. In his building Wi-Fi is only provided in a communal space that is now no longer accessible. There is no Wi-Fi in the rooms, and the migrants living there either have to buy data plans or purchase routers to install—both options are largely unaffordable on Hamza’s salary of 900 QR (US $250) a month.
“The living arrangements they share with many others and tensions over a lack of personal privacy and space are exacerbated in the midst of social distancing concerns and worries about contagion.”
Hamza moved to Doha from Uganda last year and he works for a cleaning company that contracts its workers out to large commercial premises around the city. For the first nine months, he was generally managing, though his monthly salary was and still is well below what he had hoped for when he first started the process of migrating two years ago. These days, with the lockdown and disruptions to his pay schedule, things are much more financially precarious. Hamza lives in Labor City, in a compound with fifty-five different buildings, each of which houses around 2,000 workers. Since the onset of the lockdown, most of the men have been confined to their rooms, but the bathrooms and cafeterias are shared spaces that cannot be avoided. This part of the city currently feels as though it has become the epicenter of the Covid-19 contagion in Qatar, where, even with the best intentions, social distancing seems close to impossible, and the anxiety and fear among its inhabitants are palpable.
Before the lockdown was imposed, Hamza enjoyed a routine that featured a lot of in-person contact, particularly since his main social outlet was playing football with friends at informally arranged matches. He misses both the football and its social aspect, but like Millie, Hamza believes that adopting a positive attitude is critical to getting through these times, which seem to feel both longer and lonelier. It is the uncertainty of things that seems to bother Hamza the most—not knowing how long the lockdown will last or when he will be able to return to regular work. Most concerning of all, he does not know whether wage cuts or job losses lie ahead in the weeks and months to come. Ramadan provided some relief as the regimented periods of time dedicated to focused prayer, fasting, and the breaking of fasts brought him new routines and a measure of calm. Hamza relies on his faith as well as his long-distance contact with his family more during these times than he has in the past.
Like Hamza, Wamala is also from Uganda, works as a cleaner, and shares his pandemic-induced anxiety and sense of financial precarity. His sponsor-employer temporarily stopped all work in March. With business operations suspended and no work, salary cuts and redundancies are looming. Paradoxically, since the lockdown began and he was no longer sent to clean offices, Wamala has found himself working harder than ever. These days he works at a construction site six days a week, and does so outside the margins of Qatar’s legal labor market. He cannot afford to simply stay in lockdown, watching the time tick by, uncertain of when he might or might not get his salary. Taking on additional work in the informal labor market, though risky, has helped Wamala meet his living expenses and send money back home. The construction sector, which has stayed operational throughout the lockdown, offers him an opportunity to earn some money during these precarious times. If he gets caught, he would most likely be deported for working outside of his contract and visa status.
“The need to provide for both oneself in Doha and family back home—as the primary income-earner—has amplified the pressures and anxieties these men face during such uncertain times.”
While some of Wamala’s roommates and colleagues call their families in Uganda just once or twice a week to limit the data spent on international calls, but Wamala calls his friends and family almost daily. He is unwilling to compromise on his phone time with those he misses; these human connections have become even more important to him as he tries to get through pandemic-life in Doha. Like Hamza, he has found greater meaning in his familial and personal networks and is willing to spend money to keep them alive.
The need to provide for both oneself in Doha and family back home—as the primary income-earner—has amplified the pressures and anxieties these men face during such uncertain times. Of the 900 QR Wamala receives a month, he now struggles to save even just 200 QR to remit back home. It is this challenge that drove him to search for additional employment at a time when the threat of job losses and salary cuts has never been higher. Searching through Qatar-based employment websites, Wamala found that the jobs in highest demand now involve graphic and web designing. It seems the market no longer wants manual laborers but rather workers with reasonably high levels of technological skill and digital competence.
Wamala is increasingly disillusioned and uneasy about the tenuousness of his employment status in Doha. What lies beyond this liminal phase of informal employment, particularly if the virus remains a threat for some time? Wamala and his roommates have even considered returning to Uganda or travelling elsewhere in search of more stable employment opportunities. But given the current circumstances, he finds himself forcibly restricted in terms of physical and labor market mobility. The pandemic has reinforced for him how his lack of digital skills means he has very narrow access to the labor market, and limited means to propel himself out of manual work. Low-income migrant workers often find themselves rendered immobile, trapped in an increasingly precarious occupational and socioeconomic space.
Experiences of tightly knit bonds with family that Millie, Hamza, and Wamala allude to are very different from Savio’s engagement with his family under lockdown. Savio is a 25-year-old security guard from Kenya who came to Qatar in search of employment when his business in Kenya went bankrupt after cycles of financial turmoil. Over the past year, until the pandemic struck, Savio’s entrepreneurial skills were put to the test and came through for him with an artistic start-up in the works. Now, however, he has been forcibly cut off from his recreational and entrepreneurial pursuits, which require a high level of mobility and spontaneity—both of which are difficult to achieve, if not rendered impossible, in quarantine.
“Gulf migrants’ experiences have been defined by their socioeconomic conditions and where they are placed in the labor market; those at the higher end have seldom been able to relate to the experiences of those at the other end.”
Savio lives in the highly congested Industrial Area, in a building that is home to 2,000 others. His sister also lives in Doha, but at the other end of town near Katara—an upscale area of villas and apartments. Their different geographies reflect the stark differences in their Qatari migration experience. Unable to put these aside, Savio experiences a gulf in his relationship with his sister. His sister was the one who had encouraged Savio to leave Kenya, telling him that she had found a good job in Qatar and he could do the same. However, working as a security guard and earning 2000 QR a month were and still are not the hallmarks of success that Savio was had been seeking.
Savio had intended for his migration story to be an escape into a new entrepreneurial field of work, but these ambitions have come to a grinding halt. Independence and autonomy, nonetheless, have always been non-negotiable for Savio. He refuses to call his family back home on a more frequent basis, limiting his calls to about once a month. He wants to avoid increasing anxiety for his family and he also does not want to cope with theirs. As much as possible, Savio wants to live a life of his own, even if it is in quarantine. This allows him to maintain some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. Even back home Savio liked his independence and used to maintain a certain distance from his family. In Qatar, he wants to continue to maintain his autonomy and carve out his own identity, and the pandemic has not changed that.
Still, Savio does, of course, stay connected with his family on social media, and also uses it to access important information and updates on the coronavirus in Qatar and beyond. In his own words, “whatever I have learnt is from the streets or my phone.” Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram have helped Savio cope with the current situation in quarantine. Not only do they allow him to stay abreast of news, but also to communicate with his friends and family on his own terms and in his own time. Savio shares pictures and posts status updates, a minimally intrusive and somewhat “distanced” way for him to stay connected with his personal networks.
In some ways, Gwenn, a domestic worker from the Philippines in her early 50s, has also – much like Savio — divorced herself from some of her kinship networks back home. She has created new, more robust relationships here in Qatar that have come to play a pivotal role in her now-virtual social worlds. To date, Gwenn has spent more than half her life as a domestic worker in the Arab world. She worked in Egypt and Kuwait previously, and is now into her eleventh year in Qatar. She has worked with the same family throughout her time in Qatar, and plans to stay with them for the foreseeable future. She would like to retire in a few years and perhaps open a small, home-based catering or baking business back in Davao, Philippines.
Gwenn is a single mother; her children are mostly grown up, married, and working, and only her 16-year-old son continues to be financially dependent on her. After all these years of living in Doha, Gwenn has developed a range of highly active social networks. Her church community has served as the backbone of her spiritual and social life. The current restrictions on movement and the closure of churches and mosques, however, created a sudden and drastic void in her life, as she was no longer physically able to participate in congregational gatherings or meet with her church-going friends. But her church in Doha has not abandoned its people—every few weeks Gwenn receives a parcel of home-cooked Filipino food, alongside regular messages of support and encouragement. The pastor frequently provides online sermons that, to Gwenn, are hardly the same as those preached in-person, but do provide her some reassurance and spiritual solace nonetheless.
This sentiment is not always shared by other migrant churchgoers, however. Wamala, for example, feels distanced from his Doha-based church ever since it went online after restrictions on public gatherings were imposed. He feels a lack of community and togetherness online, and he also struggles to engage in personal forms of worship during these online services. He is unable to pray or worship as he normally would in a congregational setting primarily due to a lack of privacy. Given the state restrictions on movement, the only place Wamala can spend most, if not all, of his time is in his room where three other men also reside. This makes it inconvenient and awkward for him to pray or worship. As a result, he now resorts to quiet prayer, reading of Scripture, and inconspicuous forms of worship that do not attract the attention of his roommates, allowing him some privacy.
“For most, social media and digital technology now play a pivotal role in their everyday lives. As a primary source of information, a means of connecting with family in their home countries, as well as the main outlet for recreational activity and entertainment, these tools assist migrant workers in this period of uncertainty and isolation.”
Gwenn, on the other hand, is engaged in a WhatsApp prayer circle and a Facebook-based Bible group, and, on Fridays, she is glued to the internet for most of her day. Even on weekdays, social media, her phone, and laptop play an active and ongoing role in her life. She takes breaks to punctuate her work tasks during the day, and listens to music or watches YouTube videos on topics of interest to her, such as beauty and self-care tutorials. She also makes karaoke videos of herself to share with her son back home.
Gwenn gets her news on Covid-19 through the internet, sometimes by reading articles, but mostly from her WhatsApp groups and Facebook. Recently, she even signed a Facebook petition started by a group of Filipino migrants protesting a government regulation that has made it compulsory for all overseas Filipino workers to pay three percent of their annual salary towards a new health insurance scheme. Gwenn’s employers have given her access to their Wi-Fi, but with both employers working from home and their son studying online, she finds that the speed has slowed down, making it a challenge to rely on the same Wi-Fi network. Given how dependent she is on the internet for her social and emotional life, Gwenn finds herself quite frequently having to top-up her data plan. So far, she has not been too worried about this additional expense, as her 3,000 QR a month salary makes it possible.
Disrupted Lives and Essential Tools
These short ethnographic portraits suggest that these migrants’ experiences of socioeconomic precarity have been made more pronounced since the virus came to Qatar. However, their stories offer more than that. Beyond the altered contexts and conditions of labor and employment, new social and kinship dynamics have emerged among migrant communities. Amidst all the change, precarity, and anxiety, migrant workers are striving to maintain a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy in their day-to-day routines. For most, social media and digital technology now play a pivotal role in their everyday lives. As a primary source of information, a means of connecting with family in their home countries, as well as the main outlet for recreational activity and entertainment, these tools assist migrant workers in this period of uncertainty and isolation. Unable to “work from home,” given the nature of their occupation, involving mainly on-site manual labor, migrant workers find digitized ways to both cope with and exploit the current circumstances to ease their financial precarity and enhance meaning and purpose in their new everyday lives. Importantly, unreliable internet connectivity can add greatly to their frustrations.
Our six interlocutors, who possibly represent many others, have witnessed and experienced changes to their Doha-based work and social networks, a revitalization of their religious faiths, and even a growth of friendship and new forms of solidarity with those near and very far away. These positives do not mask foundational stressors and vulnerabilities. Migrants’ concerns about wages and the fragility of their employment status have certainly not diminished but have worsened. The living arrangements they share with many others and tensions over a lack of personal privacy and space are exacerbated in the midst of social distancing concerns and worries about contagion.
One Country, Two Systems
“No one is invulnerable to mobility constraints, isolation, or loneliness at the moment. Gulf-based domestic workers have long been accustomed to “stay-at-home” orders—something that highly skilled migrants are getting a flavor of for the first time in their lives.”
The “one country, two systems” of migration classes and experiences in Qatar seems to be simultaneously exacerbated and yet also blurring around the edges. While the virus has magnified the stark differences between white- and blue-collar foreigners in terms of financial security and the ability to work from home, it has also punctured some of the class- and income-based expat bubble. Higher-income migrants in Qatar are typically cushioned from the harsher realities of life experienced by their lower-income migrant counterparts. Since the pandemic there are signs of shared experiences that are bridging the skill and income divides. No one is invulnerable to mobility constraints, isolation, or loneliness at the moment. Gulf-based domestic workers have long been accustomed to “stay-at-home” orders—something that highly skilled migrants are getting a flavor of for the first time in their lives.
Construction workers, service providers, and hundreds of thousands of other migrants in Qatar count themselves lucky if they are allowed and can afford a trip home every two years to see their families. Currently migrant bankers, engineers, doctors, and academics are—perhaps for the first time—contending with forcible separation from their loved ones, worrying about their aging parents far away, and realizing that summer vacations or travel plans to any given destination might be off-limits for quite a while. Lower-income migrants have always just had their phones and the internet when it comes to staying connected to the people who matter most to them—and now the wider population understands this too.
Regardless of geography or employment sector, many skilled and highly skilled migrants in Qatar—while still a vast distance from living in a migrant’s shoes—might be gaining a better perspective of what those shoes feel like. The Gulf migration system with all its controversial aspects has been able to survive this long in part because of a lack of solidarity or social cohesion among its migrant community, and the lack of a unified push for reform from highly skilled migrants and their sending states. Gulf migrants’ experiences have been defined by their socioeconomic conditions and where they are placed in the labor market; those at the higher end have seldom been able to relate to the experiences of those at the other end. Perhaps, in the aftermath of Covid-19, while the structural inequities of this migration system will not be transformed, attitudes among the foreign population might have shifted. In a post-pandemic Gulf we could see the emergence of greater solidarities and modes of cooperation between migrants of different categories, but, then again, Sonam and Millie would be less optimistic.
Article by Irene Promodh, CURA Research Fellow, and Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at CIRS
Read more about the COVID project here.
For Further Reading:
Khorshed Alam and Sophia Imran, “The Digital Divide and Social Inclusion among Refugee Migrants: A Case in Regional Australia,” Information Technology & People 28, no. 2 (2015): 344–365.
International Labour Organization (ILO), “Digitalization to Promote Decent Work for Migrant Workers in ASEAN,” Thematic Background Paper for the 11th ASEAN Forum, 2019, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/—sro-bangkok/do….
Douglas Broom, “Coronavirus Has Exposed the Digital Divide Like Never Before,” World Economic Forum, April 22, 2020, www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-digital-div….
Massimo Ragnedda and Glenn W. Muschert, The Third Digital Divide: A Weberian Approach to Digital Inequalities (London: Routledge, 2017).
Carl Cuneo, “Globalized and Localized Digital Divides Along the Information Highway: A Fragile Synthesis Across Bridges, Ramps, Cloverleaves, and Ladders,” University of Saskatchewan, 33rd Annual Sorokin Lecture, 2002.
* All interview subjects have been anonymized.