Why some democracies are falling behind in curbing the spread

Mar 22, 2020 | medium post

 

Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, countries continue to close borders, implement new travel restrictions, quarantine residents, and lock down cities.

Even the most liberal democracies are restricting individual freedom to protect public health and ensure the livelihoods of its citizens. Italy, whose total number of confirmed deaths doubled in a span of 5 days, was the first democratic nation to close its borders on 60 million people, the most rigorous restrictions on Italian citizens since World War II. “We are out of time,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, referencing little choice in this decision. In March, the United states followed suit as the epicenter of the pandemic shifted West. Though borders are not yet entirely closed — so far, only travel restrictions on European and select Asian countries — stringent restrictions on small businesses, corporations, small gatherings, restaurants and shops have been imposed.

Freedom restrictions by the U.S. and Italy were delayed, and ultimately enacted following panic and fear as the case growth rate and deaths continue to climb. Conte warned Italy’s citizens to abide: “we must not try and be clever.” China on the other hand, had no qualms shutting down the city of Wuhan and later the entire province of Hubei within a month of the inception of the virus. Under the authoritarian regime, citizens are used to abiding by the rules. The efforts paid off so far, resulting in a delayed growth rate of infected persons and more time for other countries to mobilize and enact policies.

Since the onslaught of COVID-19, much has happened around the world, and I am prompted to wonder:

  1. Will countries that are currently ruled by an authoritarian government be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?

  2. Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic?

Wuhan’s empty streets, Credit: The Atlantic



 

Let’s break it down:

1. Will countries that currently exhibit an authoritarian regime be better suited to curb the spread of the virus?


We will look at responses and results from China, Singapore, Italy, U.S., South Korea, and Taiwan to analyze this topic.

The argument in support of authoritarian regimes is relatively straightforward: curbing the spread of infectious diseases requires government enforcement of stringent quarantine measures and the cooperation of its citizens. In authoritarian regimes, it is more likely for the population to comply with imposed regulations.

*see note below this section for a brief history on why people in China are generally amicable to authority

Looking at China specifically, alongside individual dispositions towards authoritarian acceptance, tightened security and indictments from disobedience are also contributing factors to the population’s general compliance to authoritarian rule. This explains when the Chinese government locked down multiple cities during the coronavirus pandemic, why lawful citizens dutifully retreated to their homes without much physical resistance, and accordingly to primary sources, shaming those without masks. Even though the general public expressed their vast discontent by posting vitriolic comments and mocking memes of the government on social media, many of these posts were deleted at discretion of the State in an effort to maintain order. Freedom of speech is vastly limited, but the government experienced first-hand from the SARS epidemic how rumor and misinformation can trigger panic and dismantle response efforts led by health workers and authorities. In their mind, it was a time for solidarity, not stigma.

However, we must not ignore the issues of suppressing freedom of speech under an authoritarian regime. Journalists are quick to criticize the government for shushing Li Wenliang when he first sounded the alarm during the crucial early days of the virus. Was it wrong of the government to do this? — Yes. Did they act quickly afterwards to alert the World Health Organization? — Yes, a drastic change from its response to SARS. There’s plenty to unpack as to whether authoritarian governments are more likely to mishandle initial response to infectious disease outbreaks, but let’s do that another time. Let’s continue to focus on the control of post-outbreak spread.

From a public health perspective, authoritarian rule looks more optimistic. In contrast to democracies, it can quickly enact policies and bypass layers of bureaucracy to sponsor widespread testing and offer free treatment for infected patients. By focusing all its resources and attention to the virus, China was able to slow the infection rate.

In contrast, when Italy’s prime minister implemented similar lockdown measures in its northern territory, it resulted in chaos as thousands attempted to flee. Italy’s government (democratic by nature) was also slow to implement such restrictions, which led to exponential growth in its infected population. Only as the situation worsened did democratic nations take action to quarantine its citizens, using corporate enforcement and social media to urge them to take the situations seriously. Testing in Italy and the United States have been limited to patients with serious symptoms, and only recently has the government sponsored free testing for the virus. But still, the US is way behind when it comes to testing — 40,000 people total compared to China’s 20,000 a day as of 3/16/20 (statistics are higher today, but this references our previous ignorance of rigorous testing). As democracies fumbled to aid their own citizens and affected countries, Italy relied on China, who immediately offered medical experts, millions of face masks, and thousands of other health supplies.

Singapore, similar to China, acted quickly by closing down its schools, enforcing isolation, and conducting widespread testing. Its residents followed protocols and a forced lockdown was not necessary. With heavy government involvement and the onset of substantial measures early on, including heavy fines, clear messaging, and strict tracking, Singapore was able to reduce the infection rate.

But how do countries like South Korea, a liberal democracy itself, seem to emerge from this crisis as a paragon of successful democracies combatting COVID-19? Though it suffered an initial onslaught, it was able to quickly implement measures to contain the virus, most notably its aggressive approach to testing via a “trace and test” methodology. Normally, it would take 6 months to submit a new virus test for use, but KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control) authorized it within a week. Taiwan, similarly a democracy, has been successful in battling coronavirus through a “combination of early response, pervasive screening, contact tracing, comprehensive testing, and the adroit use of technology.” South Korea and Taiwan may not be run by authoritarian governments, but they did adopt strong authoritative policies to combat COVID-19 early on.

Some sources, such as The Economist, argue that non-democracies tend to be better than other forms of government at “containing and treating outbreaks of disease,” and that democracies “appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts.” Their analysis, however, looks at historical epidemics and data, during periods in which lack of technological progress and sanitary measures are present. Though they claim to control for geographical location and time period, they don’t present a source for which epidemics are analyzed nor do they control for population (e.g., analysis for China, which had a population of 1 billion in 1980, compared to a country such as Nepal, a country referenced in the study, which had a population of 15 million in the same year). Countries with a larger population require different levels of governance and coordination to maintain order and implement nationwide protocols. Separately, with today’s technology and development, we may also want to control for factors other than geography and income (e.g, indexes for culture, technological progress, historical background, population).

Regardless, from the successful actions by democracies (namely, South Korea and Taiwan), we may start to wonder: perhaps it’s not the style of government that determines who is better suited to curb infection growth, but rather, the society’s culture as well as the efficiency of leadership and the healthcare industry to initiate rapid response. For example, nationwide compliance and understanding is extremely important, which is closely tied to society’s culture. During the case of a national emergency, you don’t see people in East Asia take advantage of school closures and flock to beaches to celebrate spring. Furthermore, one of the most effective ways of curbing the virus is “trace and test”, a rapid method that a handful of East Asian countries have been successful in implementing, which has currently not fully matured in the West, nor has it been prioritized.

Simply look at the disparity in testing per million people among countries:


All in all, in the case of a pandemic, I don’t necessarily believe that authoritarian governments are better suited to curb the spread. Rather, strong central authority, rapid emergency health response, societal compliance to rules, and free circulation of factual information contribute to the success of battling pandemics. For authoritarian regimes, they value order and safety over individual liberties, and hence can enact stringent large-scale policies such as quarantines that are seemingly absurd at first glance to residents in democratic countries. Additionally, they are able to channel all their intellectual, physical and financial resources to battling the virus, offering free testing and treatment as well as forcibly enforcing protocol. This approach may be important for large countries such as China, since the effectiveness of the spread requires everyone’s cooperation, and the larger a country, the harder that is to control.

On the other hand, democracies take into consideration the freedoms and liberties of its citizens and also must bypass bureaucracy, which could stall critical policies from being placed rapidly. Especially with infectious diseases, one day delay can result in an exponential number of people infected. Even though South Korea served as a successful example in containment measures, it was able to do so only through bypassing the normally cumbersome procedural barriers. Therefore, I do not believe authoritarian governments are better than democratic ones when it comes to curbing virus infections within a population, but I do believe it is critical that even liberal democracies leverage authoritative approaches. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all were able to succeed through clear and decisive messaging from authority, unlike U.K. and the U.S., where leadership wavered back and forth on what how seriously to take the the pandemic. If they continue with that approach, the future will look bleak.

*Note: China is plausibly the paragon of modern day authoritarian regimes, alongside Singapore. Understanding the population’s general acceptance of authority will require historical and cultural context, in which I will provide a brief overview. This is a very complex topic that requires further reading, and I am covering only one of many relevant factors. The Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961 claimed 36 million lives and is arguably the worst catastrophe of modern day Chinese history. Induced by China’s poor governance at the time, millions of people were powerless against authorities and suffered as result. After Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, he launched China’s economic reform program (1978–2013) which focused on poverty reduction, and according to the World Bank, China’s poverty rate declined from 88% in the 1980s to 0.7% in 2015. With vast majority of citizens uneducated and living in rural areas in the 1950s — 1980s, they were detached from city politics. When economic reform rewarded them with a better lifestyle, education, and urban migration, the newly established city-dwellers garnered greater faith in the system. Perhaps it was that period of economic growth and established trust in the government, alongside China’s culture and Confucian values, that contributed to the general population’s abidance towards authority. If you’re interested in why Chinese people like their government, you can learn more here.

 

2. Will citizens in historically democratic nations become more tolerant of a centralized government / authoritarian rule following a pandemic? There exists few studies that indicate previous pandemics and epidemics (MERS, 2009 H1N1, Ebola) are linked to tolerance of a more centralized government, which I will evaluate based on voter behavior or party identification. In the short term, it is common to see stronger government intervention to ensure public and economic health. Research shows that heightened levels of stress and threat are linked to support of authoritarian behavior. If we look at other panic-inducing situations such as 9/11, we observe that individuals who were directly linked to victims have become more active in politics and exhibit increased trust in government and conservative political attitudes.

Terrorist attacks and pandemics are not congruous, but both are shocks that catalyze economic and policy changes. Still, no conclusion can be drawn on the relationship between pandemics and increase tolerance of a centralized government. However, what we do know is that pandemics have the potential to vastly affect the economy, and the economy, in turn, plays a role in voter behavior. Studies have shown that shifts in the balance of party support over time are related to economic cycles, and Kramer goes further in his research to indicate declining real income reduces the vote for the party of the incumbent president.* Given the current progression of travel bans, business closures, and stock market plunges, it is certain that there will be serious economic implications following the pandemic, which may influence voters’ preferences toward state involvement.

Another scenario I see, and also fear, is the advent of mass surveillance in liberal democracies, where governments exploit the pandemic to justify tracking of individuals (say, after we implement “trace and test”) indefinitely. Though this is more likely to occur in authoritarian regimes, liberal democracies are no exception to this threat. I’d like to be more optimistic about government intentions and assume that if the administration found it necessary to intensify tracking data collection on its citizens, it would only be a temporary measure. And following the vaccine, the government would grant privacy back to its citizens. But how confident are we that anything enacted by the state today under emergency conditions will be revoked afterwards?

Hence, even though there is a lack of evidence on pandemics directly leading to greater tolerance of a centralized government or authoritarian rule, I believe that they can, via indirect economic channels, influence voter attitudes. In the case of COVID-19, the current administration has responded with an economic stimulus package to boost businesses and mitigate an impending economic recession.** The efficacy of the package will then direct the population’s statist attitudes. However, it is also possible that following a pandemic, the government may become more centralized and increase mass surveillance in the nation without the citizens’ knowledge. That, I’m afraid, may be the forthcoming reality.

*Despite economic downturns having political costs, research does not claim any unique specification of individual response patterns. **What the current government has done is not enough. From Trump’s racist attacks on China and the refusal of many Republicans to be serious about the virus early on, the American government administration faces ridicule from the rest of the world. Instead of setting an example and uniting countries together, our ‘leaders’ point fingers and refuse to listen to the objective truth.


 

The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving daily: advancements in technology and research are continuously being made, and countries are frequently updating their protocols and uniting to find newer and faster ways to test individuals. Although authoritarian governments are not necessarily better when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus, all forms of government need to temporarily become more authoritative to ensure the safety of its citizens and promote rigorous testing and tracking. Governments should be cautious of how they handle the economy during these uncertain times and also of potential exploitation of the situation to enable stronger state surveillance following the pandemic. As citizens, we should also participate in the fight against the virus, supporting those around us and abiding by the rules, as well as being aware and critical of our government’s actions.

Reviewing COVID-19 quarantines and the trade-off between public heath and economic crisis


Mar 20, 2020 | Medium post



Quarantines come at the expense of the economy. The shuttered businesses and restaurants are only the surface of the actualities of economic damage — it breaks an entire production chain that can have lasting effects on all kinds of people, especially the working class. So is it worth it?

  • Should we just let the virus break free in an apocalyptic survival-of-the-fittest style?

  • Should we loosen regulations, enforcing self-isolation measures and work from home protocols but keeping factories, shops, and businesses open?

  • Should we simply maintain our current level of containment, enforcing strict-isolation guidelines, travel bans for non-essential travel, and closure of non-essential businesses?

  • Or, should quarantine measures be even more stringent that what they are right now?


To evaluate these options, we first need to understand the contagiousness of the virus. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College in London, produced a study based on influenza outbreaks that showed COVID-19 to have a “basic reproduction number” of 2.4, meaning that if no precautions are taken in a world where no immunity for the virus exists, each case will lead to 2.4 secondary cases on average. Under those model conditions, within 3–4 months, the majority of the population will be infected with the disease, and given the world population of people over 65 and or have cardiovascular and respiratory problems, we could be witnessing tens of millions of deaths, potentially matching or exceeding that of the Spanish Flu in 1918.

The Economist chart below shows the exponential growth of confirmed cases of several European countries compared to that of South Korea, which implemented stringent containment guidelines and aggressive testing.

Option 1: If a survival-of-the-fittest approach is adopted, and immunity builds within the communities that are strong enough to combat the virus, we will see millions of people perish as a result. If we value human life equally among different age groups and health conditions, then this is an extremely inhumane thought. Not to mention, the demand for intensive-care units (ICUs) will far exceed the supply, leading to the overexertion of doctors and nurses and the potential collapse of the healthcare industry once Medicare starts paying out more in hospital bills than the premiums it collects.

Option 2: What if we loosen regulations and only enforce isolation for those who are older than 65, and advise social distancing to the younger population until a vaccine is developed? First, isolating the elderly population from society and their families is harmful for their mental and health, as some studies have shown. The growing feeling of loneliness spawning from targeted isolation measures can result in health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease within that population. Additionally, many elderly people do not have caregivers, and hence need to purchase their own groceries, cook their own meals, and take their own medication, which requires them to leave their apartment for grocery and pharmacy runs. Secondly, given the high infection levels of COVID-19, we cannot guarantee that the more vulnerable population will not be infected. The virus can survive on surfaces for up to several days, and it is not unlikely that people from this population will be infected from purchasing a piece of fruit from a nearby shop. Therefore, we cannot simply isolate one population and hope that the virus will simply contain itself until a vaccine is discovered, which could take at least a year.

Option 3: So does this mean the current containment measures are the best approach? As retail stores and restaurants shut down, schools close, stock market tumble, festivals and conferences get postponed, and travel industry shatters from border closings and non-essential travel bans, how far is too far? Prominent economists remark that a recession is very likely, even if the mortality rate is limited. If we value all lives equally, we must also consider the economic carnage resulting from quarantines as jobs are lost, businesses go bankrupt, and retirement funds dwindle in worth. Hence, economic scarring may cause a bleaker future for the younger generation and more suffering for the working class. It’s hard to know exactly what will happen 12–18 months out, but we can assume that with no federal involvement, unemployment and debt will rack up. We don’t want that either.

There are many reasons to believe why it’s important for governments to enforce such strict quarantine rules on its population, but evaluating the economic impact to many businesses, the government also must assume responsibility and enact effective policies to minimize the impact, whether through a federal stimulus package, tax cuts, or other proposals. But in the meantime, strict quarantine rules must be in place to decrease the infection rate.

So long as the basic reproduction number for COVID-19 is > 1 within a country, we must dutifully abide by social distancing rules. Once the government administers rigorous testing, implements isolation measures, and the number dips < 1, then the administration can reevaluate relaxing the restrictions on businesses and using zoning rules to let people out of their homes. These changes should be gradual, because even if the reproduction number decreases, the population is not immune to the disease prior to the discovery of a vaccine. Therefore, it is likely that resurgence of the virus will start again in late autumn. If factories and businesses were to open, it should be done so with caution, with slow and steady increase of the number of people operating in the same space.

Option 4: Imposing even stronger measures will likely not have a significant impact to what we currently see now. Therefore, more attention should be placed on producing masks and ventilators, opening new testing centers, developing symptom medication, and evolving vaccine research. In the meantime, the government should put forth greater effort to mitigate the negative economic impact from this pandemic.

The moral of the story is…

Quarantine is absolutely essential to public health and ensuring the safety of vulnerable populations. However, we must not ignore the economic consequences that could cause even greater pain and suffering for the years to come. Hence, it is of utmost important that the federal government aids the economy while strict quarantine measures are in place.

What they can do:

  1. Emergency payroll tax cuts and / or universal basic income for people making under a certain threshold

  2. Emergency corporate tax cuts and / or income to affected industries (e.g., travel, SMBs, restaurants)

  3. Bridging loans to small businesses

  4. Fiscal stimulus package for large affected businesses (e.g., factories, travel industry)

  5. Expansion of unemployment insurance benefits to freelancers and the gig economy workers or independent contractors

  6. Enforce mandatory medical coverage for independent contractors by employers


 

So how did quarantines even become a thing? To understand the concept of “quarantine” requires analysis of its historical roots. The earliest recorded reference to quarantine emerged form the Biblical book of Leviticus:

“the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day … [the priest] sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate him for another seven days.”

Examples of this concept began taking effect in the 700s in the Islamic empire to isolate patients with leprosy. The inception of the term “quarantine” began a few centuries later in Venice. The Venetian State was a pioneer in establishing regulation and isolation practices that included quarantine, defined as isolation ranging from 14 to >40 days. In response to the severity of the Black Death of the 14th century, which claimed an estimated 200 million lives, Venice implemented trading restrictions. Any suspected shift must wait 40 days before docking in its ports. This waiting period became known as the “quarantinario”. Fast forward to the the 17th and 18th century, when the plague mades its way to shore, Venetians quickly activated an inspection system and local movement controls and isolation. Infected persons were held in “lazarettos”, which were isolation institutions. Its efforts successfully decreased the spread of the plague epidemic.

In the late 18th century, yellow fever reached Philadelphia and spiraled the city into turmoil. The governor called for stricter quarantines and vessels inspections. Following the outbreak, public health laws and water supply improvements were carried out to improve the city’s sanitary conditions.

In 1944, the Public Health Service Act established the first federal government’s quarantine authority. Quarantine stations are located in a variety of large cities in the United States, under the CEC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. This division is able to detain, medically examine, or conditionally release suspicious individuals and wildlife.

Quarantine has been used for centuries (SARs, Ebola, H1N1, etc.) due to it effectiveness in preventing the spread of contagious diseases. Quarantine and isolation are two distinct concepts: isolation refers to the “separation and restricted movement of ill persons who have a contagious disease”, whereas quarantine refers to the “restriction of movement or separation of well persons who have been exposed to a contagious disease”.

The current quarantine measures are arguably the most global it’s ever been historically. European Union instituted a 30-day travel ban on nonessential travel to at least 26 European countries. In Africa, travels bans have been implemented in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, and South Africa. A handful of Latin American countries are no longer accepting foreign nationals from any country. I arrived in Argentina 2 days before the country barred entry and exit to and from the United States. Nepal and India both suspended visas for foreigners, and a slew of quarantine measures are enacted in Asia, from China and Japan to Cambodia and the Philippines.

Historically, quarantines have been successful in minimizing contagion. In the case of COVID-19, we will need more time to determine whether the measures in place have successfully curbed its spread. After strict isolation measures in China, Hubei has reported no domestic cases of coronavirus for the first time since the outbreak. Whether the rest of the world will follow a similar progression towards curbing the virus is to be determined.



 

For the purpose of this article, I will not go into detail on the impact of COVID-19. A good post on COVID-19’s 18-month trajectory and impact on society, refer to this medium post.

The other side of Qatar | Nov 2015


Upon the discovery of natural resources in its opulent desert land, Qatar transformed. Enormous amounts of wealth were injected into the state as Qatar prudently invested the gains from its resources into its economy and infrastructure, avoiding the “resource curse” that trapped many nations. However, growth requires implementation which ultimately requires labor. Certainly, the small population of Qatar is not sufficient for the ever-growing demand, and with the new rising wealth and standards of living, few natives would want to work low-skilled jobs such as construction and cleaning.


This issue plagues many oil-rich nations such as Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The high demand for labor to support their vast development plans begins a series of recruiting at developing countries such as India, Nepal, Malaysia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, where desperate workers, many who suffer from malnutrition, sick family members, or exorbitant loans, flock there. They trade in their souls in hopes of making a few dollars to send back home, and their labor, unsurprisingly, is exploited at the lowest cost.


As Qatar prepares for construction for hosting the 2022 FIFA World cup, the demand for foreign labor in low-level jobs such as construction is on the rise, and there is no shortage in supply for these positions. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Arabian Studies states that over a fifth of migrant workers in Qatar are paid “on time only sometimes, rarely, or never”. Furthermore, those who do get paid earn 1.2% of an average citizen’s annual income. However, the article “A Radical Solution to Global Income Inequality: Make the U.S. More Like Qatar” by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl proclaims Qatar is actually reducing “global inequality” since it pays workers up to five times the amount they normally make back in their home countries. The claim is true on a purely salary-based standpoint; however, it fails to consider that the minimal pay comes at the cost of freedom, individual rights, and safety.


Aside from the poor pay, migrant workers also suffer from decrepit housing conditions. The migrant camps, located in the outskirts of the city, where low qualified workers live in are regarded as a form of ‘dormitory labor regime’ (Ngai & Smith 2007). Tristan Brulee, who spent nearly 2 months living inside a labor camp to study daily interactions, described them as “places where no one would ever choose to live given the desolate environment of the industrial areas where camps are located and the often overcrowded and filthy condition in the camps themselves”. In these areas, the roads are neglected and unpaved, with abandoned cars and rubbish lying around. Furthermore, these migrants are clearly separated from the rest of the city and are devoid of political rights. It is impossible to obtain Qatari citizenship, due to the tribal nature of the closed political system. The value of these migrants’ lives are so low, as they are deprived of space, freedom, control, and right to live a decent life. As Tristan puts it, “The camp itself is a device that deprives men of choices”.


Migrant workers take on a variety of different jobs depending on their skill level and gender. Some, like a man I met from Cameroon who holds a degree from a Western university, is the manager of a coffee shop. Another, from Ethiopia, quit his job as an accountant to become an Uber driver, since it has “more money”. But many unskilled workers are exploited, trapped under contract in Qatar, and face shams and corruption in their home countries. As if the hardships they face in their native country isn’t bad enough, these workers are constantly overcharged and deceived by greedy recruiters.


Their pay in Doha may exceed the amount they would have earned back in their home countries, but their struggle to stay alive, find jobs, and send money back to their families certainly should not be neglected. Recently, there have been increasing media attention from other countries regarding the treatment and conditions of its migrant labor population. News sources, from BBC, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have been monitoring the labor issues in Qatar, pushing the government in Doha to take more action on the problem. Although some advancements have been made, a large portion still remains to be addressed.


It is an unfortunate fact that countries operate in a manner that fulfills their own selfish needs without considering the implications of their own actions. Qatar, a nation with such an optimistic economic standing, easily turns a blind eye to human rights issues like labor exploitation. The US is no exception, and its history in Venezuela, Ecuador, Iran, Panama, etc. is solid proof.


Until wealthy countries are able to put aside their own self-interests and actively work towards solving issues that plague the poorer lands on this planet, our true growth potential will forever be stinted.


 

Personal aside on Doha


Although my research in Doha only lasted two weeks, I was able to appreciate the greatness of the nation that retains its rank as the country with the highest GDP per capita.


The city I see if I set foot in Doha 30 years ago, and the city I see today are so incredibly different that I would probably not even recognize the pictures from 1977 as Qatar. This country has transformed from a fishing industry into a stunning, modern magnet, attracting foreigners from all around the world. Unlike other resource and oil rich countries that failed to invest in infrastructure or create a sustainable goal, Qatar successfully developed its hydrocarbon resources into a vision for the country.


In 1971, the Forth Field, which is the world’s largest non-associated gas reservoir, was discovered. It took 20 years to unlock the potential of this reserve, and during this time, Qatar focused on developing domestically and channeling its exports. Starting off with exporting liquefied natural gas to Japan in 1997, Qatar relentlessly scaled upwards, establishing itself as a trustworthy and flexible partner and supplier. In 2003, it constructed the Oryx GTL, the world’s first commercial-scale gas-to-liquid fuels, and throughout the 1990s, the state uncovered vast amounts of reserves. Qatar has 25 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and the world’s 3rd largest natural gas reserves, and output at current levels are projected to sustain for 56 years. Oil and gas account for about 85% of export revenues and more than 50% of GDP. Today, Qatar is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and gas-to-liquid fuels in the world. Its ability to monetize its natural resources allowed for its economy to boom and attain the world’s highest GDP per capita.


According to the 2015 Country Report, Qatar’s real GDP growth should average 6-7% between 2012 and 2015, increasing each year. The International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Outlook database in 2014 projects its GDP to be $227 billion in 2015, with the GDP per capita to be $94,744. Beyond oil and gas, Qatar is continuously diversifying its portfolio, investing in financial institutions, scientific research and development, airlines, and education. Qatar University, Qatar Airways, the Qatar Financial Centre Authority, and Qatar Science Technology are just a few examples of the vastness of Qatar’s recent development.

A high demand for labor accompanies this incredible growth and development, drawing thousands of expatriates, especially from lesser developed countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Even with the immigration flood, a labor shortage persists in Qatar and the unemployment rate remains only .3%. As of November 2014, Qatar’s total population is 2,269,672 and growing. Qatari nationals number about 278,000, with the other 88% of the population non-Qataris. Indian workers represent the largest foreign nationality, with a population of about 545,000, and Nepal follows close behind at 400,000. Foreign workers constitute 94% of public-sector employees and 100% of private-sector jobs. A population pyramid according to GSDP in 2011 shows that Qatar is approximately three quarters male and one quarter female.


The awe-inspiring photos of Doha displayed in magazines are no comparison to the naked beauty of the city. The buildings, meticulously designed by expert architects, is a magnificent work of art by itself. From the Museum of Islamic art, the entire industrial center of Doha is within view, and as my friend from Qatar University puts it: “the best view oil can buy”. The Villagio, the largest mall in Qatar, is crowded with rich foreigners, designer labels, an amusement part, a skating rink, and a man-made canal that extends from the center, where visitors can tour in a boat.


On the northern side of Doha lies The Pearl, a four million square meter artificial island built to house foreign nationals. One two bedroom apartment in this area can amount to 16,000 riyals a month. The day starts early for the working population – usually around 7am, but the majority of people get off around 4/5pm. The night is filled with a wide range of activities, from cultural shows at Katara, family activities at the multitude of malls, and excellent food at the Souq Waqif.


Life is seemingly slow-paced and relaxing. The average salary is 17,144 riyals/month, and some professions such as a construction project manager earn as much as 350,073 riyals/month. However, a large portion of the population do not enjoy the same luxurious amenities as the others, as you have learned from above. A city's exterior may be magnificent, but until it is able to correct its toxic internal systems, it will not shine.