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Search for expats moved from Jleeb, Mahboula; 112 new cases

KUWAIT: Police officers man a checkpoint at the entrance of Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh on Tuesday after the area was put on lockdown. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By B Izzak

KUWAIT: The ministry of health yesterday reported 112 new coronavirus cases in Kuwait, raising the total to 855 cases, 79 of whom are Indians, 10 Egyptians, 10 Bangladeshis, five Pakistanis, one Kuwaiti and the remaining of different nationalities. Of the 743 cases in hospital, 21 are in the intensive care unit. The health ministry also said that there were six new recoveries, bringing the total to 111.

The government has formed a special committee comprising of the municipality and the ministries of health, interior and electricity and water in addition to the Public Authority for Manpower with the aim to bring back expatriate workers who left Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula hours before they were placed under a lockdown to prevent the spread of the disease.

The health ministry will test those workers for coronavirus, while the manpower authority will locate their sponsors. Search campaigns will focus on Jahra, Wafra and Fahaheel, where thousands of workers are believed to have been moved by their companies to avoid the lockdown and continue work. MP Yousef Al-Fadhalah said he hopes that all Kuwaitis stranded overseas because of coronavirus will be repatriated before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, expected to commence on April 24.

Meanwhile, opposition MP Riyadh Al-Adasani yesterday reiterated his strong opposition to a government legislation that would allow authorities to borrow KD 20 billion over the next 10 years to finance a persistent budget deficit. Adasani said the government has more than KD 20 billion that can be injected into the General Reserve Fund either by releasing frozen profits, rationalizing expenditure or seeking transfers from the cash-abundant Fund for Future Generations.

The lawmaker also said that under this exceptional situation, the government and the Assembly can issue legislation to suspend the transfer of 10 percent of public revenues to the Future Generations Fund in fiscal years when the budget is in deficit. This could provide the General Reserve Fund with between KD 1.5 to 2 billion a year.

Adasani said a number of government departments have been keeping profits totaling some KD 9 billion for years, which is against the law, and these funds must be sent to the General Reserve Fund. After these procedures, if there is still a budget shortfall, some transfers should be made to the General Reserve Fund from the Future Generations Fund, which has available cash of more than the KD 20 billion debt the government is seeking. This means the government will not need to liquidate some of the country’s assets held overseas.

The Assembly’s budgets committee was due to start talks with the newly-appointed government economic team headed by Central Bank Governor Mohammad Al-Hashel on ways to finance the deficit and support national economy in the face of the coronavirus fallout. MP Saleh Ashour meanwhile called on the government to suspend giving loans through the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development in order to direct investments inside the country.

Human rights groups urged three Gulf Arab states yesterday to lift bans on free Internet calls to help their large migrant workforces stay in touch during the coronavirus pandemic. Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have long blocked many voice and video calling apps on the grounds of protecting the commercial interests of state-owned telecoms utilities. “This has caused serious problems for the people living in those countries, especially the majority of migrant workers and foreign national residents who need to connect and communicate with their families and communities overseas,” the rights groups said.

A majority of the estimated 17 million people living in the three Gulf states are expatriates, most of them low-paid workers from Asia. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE and Oman have relaxed restrictions on some calling apps but on a temporary basis. They have unblocked apps that allow for distance learning such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. Microsoft Teams and Zoom are also available in Qatar.

State-owned telecom firms in the UAE have also introduced a new app, UAE Voice, that allows for free video and audio calls. But popular apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime remain blocked despite persistent calls for a change of policy to face the pandemic, Human Rights Watch and 28 other civil society groups said in a joint statement. “Denying the Gulf population access to these platforms puts people at serious risk, as this cuts them off from their communities abroad and the resources they need in times of such crisis,” they said.

Despite its ambition to become a major technological power, the UAE has harsh cybercrime laws and maintains what civil society groups call a high level of online restrictions and surveillance. In December, the New York Times accused the UAE intelligence services of using popular new app ToTok to spy on users.

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