Robert Jackman has written in the Telegraph about his recent trip to Qatar for a World Cup ‘test run’ match, where he found a country still in the grip of Covid theatre, mask mania and digital discrimination.
A few days before his departure, the country changed its entry requirements and demanded a lab-certified Covid test before arrival for vaccinated as well as unvaccinated travellers. Jackman duly complied.
My short-notice visit to a plush Covid clinic in Kensington (whose heavily-branded waiting room resembles a Scientology centre) does have one silver lining. It gives me time to complete my other pre-boarding requirements – which include uploading my NHS vaccine certificate, completing a passenger locator form, and installing Qatar’s compulsory Covid app, Ehteraz.
You might think that a commercially-savvy state like Qatar, whose 96% vaccination rate ranks as the fifth highest in the world, might have thought twice about introducing such cumbersome requirements on travellers as it prepares to host one of the biggest sporting events on earth. Yet here we are.
When I arrive in Doha, there are yet more rules to follow. Before entering a restaurant or shop, you must show your Ehteraz app, which serves as proof of vaccination as well as offering a running commentary on local Covid levels…
Thankfully, Qatar’s strict mask mandate was recently relaxed and now only applies to public transport and not hospitality venues and shops. Sadly, though, this hasn’t reached the army of service workers who toil away to keep this place running. From waiters to chauffeurs, all are required to stay masked.
Given the already stark inequalities in the Gulf, it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Walking around Doha, I feel particularly sorry for the security guards standing outside hotels, wearing masks in the 40-degree heat. Many will say it is hardly the most pressing labour issue in the region – and they’re right. Yet it’s one that could be solved overnight.
In a country where most people are already relying on a non-native language to do their job, masks also add a serious barrier to communication. At dinner, my Kazakh waitress is impeccably diligent and polite, yet I feel guilty at being unable to understand her muffled English (none of which, of course, is remotely her fault).
Could stricter mask mandates return for the World Cup? Quite possibly. Qatar adjusts its restrictions as cases rise or fall, meaning that tougher rules can return at any time. For fans already facing serious curbs around alcohol, compulsory masks in stadiums could be another dampener. It would certainly be a shame.
In many ways Qatar is well-prepared for the World Cup, Jackman writes. So why “insist on expensive pre-departure testing and vaccine passport rules that much of the Western world has already scrapped (and without having any discernible impact on their Covid cases either)?”
Worth reading in full.