A public opinion survey among Kuwaitis published last week revealed that a majority (65%) of those responding to the survey believed that expatriates were the main reason behind the emergence and spread of coronavirus in Kuwait. In addition, over three-quarters (76%) of those surveyed felt that the government should consider deporting most of the foreigners from the country, while 39 percent said expatriates should not be given access to free treatment for COVID-19 in government-run hospitals.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies at Kuwait University, and supervised by Dr. Faisal Abu Salib, the Center’s director, was conducted from 1 to 8 August among a sample population of 1,002 Kuwaiti citizens.

Notwithstanding the biased views expressed by respondents to the survey, or the rationale for even conducting such a survey at a time when the country is confronting a major crisis, there are several other anomalies in the survey. In the first place, the opinion of a small number of survey respondents are not characteristic of the entire Kuwait society. A sample of 1,000 respondents from a population of over 1.4 million Kuwaitis (0.07%) cannot be indicative of the opinion of the entire Kuwaiti population. Any statistician will tell you that the smaller the sample size the decreasingly representative of the general population it becomes; in other words, small sample sizes inherently affect the reliability of surveys.

In addition, the surveyors did not make clear where the survey was conducted, the mix of the population sampled, or how the questions were framed to the respondents. All of this makes a difference to how the survey can be interpreted. For instance, the place and nature of the sample survey could determine variability of the results, with a higher variability leading to biased outcomes, such as through ‘non-response’. This occurs when some subjects of the survey do not have the opportunity to participate in the survey. Conducting the survey in August, when people were generally avoiding public places, limited the scope of the survey to only those who were out and about at that time. 

Also, how the questions are framed and the response options available, makes a profound difference to the answers in a survey, especially so if the sample survey is small. Ambiguous or biased questions can lead to prejudiced answers. The surveyors also did not indicate whether their questions were open- or closed-ended. This is significant, as the nature of the question —  whether it allows people to answer in their own words (open-ended) or they have to make a choice from a list of response options (closed-ended) — can make a difference to the answers provided. We do not know how the questions were framed for this survey. 

Another disadvantage that comes from the small sample size is ‘voluntary response bias’. Holding the survey in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was probably not the right time to evaluate public feelings on the virus. In August, when the sampling was done, infections and deaths from the virus were on the rise, people were suffering from restricted freedom of movement, nixed social interactions, and possibly worried about the economic burden of the disease. Understandably, people were looking for a scapegoat for all their troubles, and what better ‘goat’ than expatriates?. 

For purposes of accuracy, the originators of the survey should have made all this clear through a disclaimer to their survey, but the fact that they did not will only help to add fuel to the xenophobic sentiment among a section of Kuwait society.

In recent months there have been vociferous calls in parliament and elsewhere for the authorities to realign the skewed demographics in the country, by reducing the number of expatriates and speed up the Kuwaitization drive in public sector jobs. With an expatriate population of 3.4 million, Kuwaitis account for only around 30 percent (1.4 million) of the country’s population of 4.8 million. 

The survey by the Center for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies at Kuwait University will probably help make such calls for throwing out expatriates more strident, but it is unlikely to add to the body of accurate academic knowledge, or foster open-mindedness in young students which will be key to their success in a world that is increasingly interconnected.

Setting aside the survey and its published results, let us look at how the situation actually evolved in the early days of coronavirus infection in the country. 

The first recorded case of coronavirus infection in the region was on 29 January in the United Arab Emirates, in a family of four who arrived from Wuhan in China —  acknowledged as the epicenter for the origin of the coronavirus. This case probably accounted for many of the early infections  and spread in the UAE. 

Iran, which in the early days of the infection had the largest number of cases after China, has been seen as the center for the spread of the disease in the region. The first case of the virus was reported in the country on 19 February. Nearly all of the initial cases in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with the exception of the UAE,  have been attributed to people who arrived from Iran.

Kuwait reported its first case on 26 February with multiple people testing positive for the virus among the hundreds of people who were evacuated from Mashhad city in Iran. Many of those evacuated from Mashhad were citizens, not expatriates. The evacuees were quarantined and the situation remained relatively stable, with only a couple of casualties linked to the virus. 

All this changed in the last week of March, when the government began a multi-phased evacuation process to bring home Kuwaitis stranded abroad, especially from Europe which by then was reeling from a surge of virus infections and casualties. The batch of evacuees began landing from March 25 and were duly scanned and quarantined as needed. Again, most of those returnees were citizens, not expatriates. 

Kuwait, it should be remembered, had stopped all international flights to and from seven countries — India, Egypt, Bangladesh, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Syria and Lebanon — which accounted for most of the expatriates in the country, as early as 7 March. So the chances of infected expatriates arriving in Kuwait to spread the disease as purported by the survey does not bear any substance. This opens the question of how expatriates became infected in the first place, and the answer could probably be best answered by another survey.

The coronavirus pandemic, which first erupted in China at the tail-end of 2019, has in the space of less than nine months spread globally, infecting more than 26 million people and claiming the lives of over 880,000 worldwide. 

Like elsewhere in the world, the pandemic has caused extensive economic damage and extracted a severe toll in human lives in the six-nation GCC states. To their credit, the GCC states responded quickly to the initial reports of infection and implemented a slew of drastic measures, including closing airports to international flights and restricting entry at border points, as well as introducing stringent lockdowns and curfews within the country. The authorities also enforced rigorous health precautions, such as a ban on gatherings, the closure of public venues, the  wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing in public places. 

While these steps along with an effective health infrastructure may have helped mitigate spread of the disease and lower the severity of its impact within the GCC, it has not halted the infection, with all six countries continuing to report new cases and new fatalities on a regular basis.

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