Migrant workers at heart of Bahrain’s COVID-19 strategy

When we look back at the history of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the years to come, when restrictions on movement are lifted and friends are reunited, what will be the most important lessons learned? I suggest this: When people united, to respect social distancing and protect the vulnerable, we discovered our most powerful weapon against the virus. One of the things this pandemic has made clear is that the whole community must come together to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Here in Bahrain, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has led the way. From sharing preventative World Health Organization-approved guidelines and respecting public health precautions to caring for those affected, he has stressed that we are all one team in response to this outbreak. Together, and regardless of background, we are all on “Team Bahrain.”

In this spirit, the government’s top priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been the protection of every citizen and resident. This fact has been clearly demonstrated by the holistic care and support extended to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who call the kingdom home. Each of them plays an essential role in driving Bahrain’s diverse economy forward, from nursing to construction and logistics, and the government is committed to honoring their efforts in this challenging time.

Effectively mitigating and eradicating this virus requires us to treat the health and safety of all equally. Central to this has been a comprehensive program of testing and social distancing, launched by the kingdom long before a global pandemic was declared.

To date, Bahrain has conducted almost 700,000 tests for COVID-19, giving it one of the highest rates of testing per 1,000 people in the world. When a case is discovered, immediate medical treatment is provided free of charge. Furthermore, free hot meals are delivered daily to all foreign workers placed in government-mandated home quarantine, with more than 250,000 meals provided so far. These prudent measures are helping to ensure the best possible care outcomes for those affected, while safeguarding the health of the wider community.

The government has also established a comprehensive public health and social welfare protocol to ensure migrant workers are protected. This includes directing all employers to provide masks and conduct temperature testing at worksites, and the launch of a comprehensive public awareness campaign that includes direct text messages across multiple languages. In fact, the kingdom has already circulated more than 900,000 multilingual public health awareness pamphlets, ensuring every segment of Bahrain’s diverse community understands the role they play in virus mitigation efforts.

Furthermore, we have mandated that all employers provide 10 percent additional accommodation capacity to support social distancing measures, and regular field visits are being conducted by the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) to ensure migrant worker housing meets our stringent public health and social welfare standards. These measures are supported by a comprehensive contact tracing plan, developed in coordination with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Health, to flag active cases and their possible contacts.

The impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the global economy has been profound, and governments around the world need to respond in a flexible and responsible manner. Soon after the Ministry of Finance and National Economy launched its comprehensive economic stimulus package to support businesses and individuals during this time, the LMRA announced it would support the private sector by mandating a three-month moratorium on all work permit issuance and renewal fees, as well as monthly fees. This was followed by a further three months of reduced fees, which has helped stimulate the economy and provided 45,000 workers with new opportunities for work despite the global economic downturn.

The government also understands that the pandemic has frustrated adequate career and life planning. Therefore, to provide migrant workers with greater certainty, we have introduced a nine-month amnesty period to allow anyone living in Bahrain without the proper permits to regularize their status or return home without legal consequence. During the amnesty, any previous work and residency violations will be overlooked, allowing for new work permits to be issued without penalty. Migrants are also free to leave the kingdom without any obstacles affecting their departure or desire to return for work in the future.

It remains a great source of pride to me that the LMRA has been regularly identified by international observers, including the International Organization for Migration and members of the UN Human Rights Council, who have praised Bahrain for its success in guaranteeing the rights of migrant workers and combating human trafficking. The action we have taken to protect expatriates during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that this praise is not misplaced.

Rest assured, in spite of our success, we will not rest on our laurels. Through comprehensive coordination across government and the entire community, I am confident that Team Bahrain will prevail against COVID-19.

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