JEDDAH/DUBAI: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety of residents, especially those living in crowded spaces and sharing common facilities, has become one of the top concerns of every country and province.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, home to some of the world’s biggest blue-collar migrant communities, the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus has proved to be a particularly daunting health challenge.
When the chronicle of this difficult era is written, Saudi Arabia’s Madinah is likely to emerge as a regional trailblazer with its proactive approach and farsighted initiatives in dealing with the public-health emergency.
From infection-control measures to mobile hospitals and from charitable programs to housing projects for migrant workers, the local government has practically written a new rulebook for handling an outbreak.
Just how high on Madinah’s priority list lies the welfare of foreign migrant workers during the pandemic can be gauged from the housing facilities being developed in Al-Khalil and Al-Oyoun, two areas in the region’s northwest.
The three fast-track pilot projects in Madinah, spread over an area of 39,000 sq. meters, are expected to eliminate 40 percent of migrant workers’ accommodation problems.
Over the next 18 months, five more housing sites will be developed by the private sector in coordination with the Madinah municipality.
The coronavirus, despite having no intelligence, is almost perfectly programmed to target the weakest segment of any population, including those with impaired immune systems or for whom social distancing is a luxury.
Low-income migrant workers, who drive garbage trucks and clean streets, are likely to tick one or both of the above boxes, thus making them easy fuel for the pandemic.
Protecting them against the deadly virus is therefore at once a social responsibility and a rational choice, be it for Singapore or Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials describe the Madinah pilot projects as part of a whole-of-society approach to health and safety in view of the outsized importance that precautionary measures in workers’ housing sites has assumed.
They say the new facilities will reduce the chances of infectious-disease outbreaks and encourage the private sector to take greater responsibility for their labor force.
In comments to the media this month while inspecting some of the facilities under construction, Madinah’s Gov. Prince Faisal bin Salman said: “Our religion urges us to treat all workers compassionately, and as such, we refuse to have workers exposed to any kind of physical or psychological harm that could affect their wellbeing.”
He added: “Migrant workers who come here seeking a better life for them and their families are our responsibility, and we shall do everything in our power to keep them safe until they return to their homelands.”
The Al-Khalil project consists of 976 units in which up to 3,000 workers can be lodged. The facilities will include dining halls, a supermarket, a clinic, a gym, and a dedicated building for public services such as control systems, power transformers and water treatment.
Laundry services and a self-service kitchen will be provided in a separate building, while the site is equipped with security surveillance systems.
Among the facilities will be a two-story mosque where 900 worshippers can offer their daily prayers.
All the structures are planned to be constructed in compliance with the best international environmental and health practices.
The pilot housing plan was conceived not only in recognition of the urgency of the public-health situation, but also as a long-term solution to the challenge of accommodating the large numbers of workers employed in various projects in Madinah.
“The prince was very keen that the solution should take the humane aspects of the issue into consideration when securing for them appropriate housing facilities and good living conditions,” Munir Mohammed Nasser bin Saad, chairman of the board of directors of the Madinah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Arab News.
“As Prince Faisal said, we’ve been entrusted with taking care and ensuring a decent life for these workers. This model housing project is one part of our responsibility toward them.”
Bin Saad said work commenced immediately after Prince Faisal issued a directive for the completion of the housing projects in Al-Khalil and Al-Oyoun.
“With the joint efforts and cooperation of all relevant bodies, a national company is developing the facilities, which will be completed within the next three months,” Bin Saad said, adding that Prince Faisal is personally monitoring the projects’ progress.
The success of the Madinah government’s initiatives will ultimately redound to the benefit of the private sector, which is braced for a challenging time in the era of the coronavirus.
As Saudi businessman Mohammed Bakhit told Arab News: “Workers everywhere are always vulnerable to infections, and in case of any viral outbreak among these workers, God forbid, the whole community will pay the price, and it could be a deadly price.”
The housing projects under way in Madinah will provide workers with the conveniences and safety people normally expect in their homes, he said.
“These facilities will provide a comfortable residential environment, which in turn will allow them to enjoy their off-duty hours and increase their productivity,” he added.
Bakhit said it is obvious from the drawings that the “designers consider the laborers who will live in the quarters as not just people working for the Kingdom’s development but, above all, as humans who deserve our respect and compassion.”
The housing projects are among a string of initiatives launched by Madinah to help residents cope with the fallout of the coronavirus crisis.
Goodness of Madinah, a charity, and Saudi Post have tied up to distribute food baskets in the region, the Saudi Press Agency reported recently.
The agreement is part of an effort to forge partnerships between the non-profit and private sectors to fill the need for social and family support services.
The first phase of the deal includes the distribution of 15,000 food baskets supplied by Goodness of Madinah to the needy.
The charity, under Prince Faisal’s guidance, aims to help NGOs secure essential commodities for people in need.
In yet another initiative, ACWA Power, the energy and desalinated-water provider, signed a deal this month to build a 100-bed integrated mobile hospital, fully resourced with the medical equipment and supplies needed to treat COVID-19 cases.
The new facility is expected to be operational within 70 days, and will provide comprehensive health-care services and aid in handling the pandemic.
Prince Faisal has also publicly appreciated the contribution of workers in Madinah’s medical facilities, praising the efficiency of health practitioners and equipment in the confinement center dedicated to treating people with COVID-19 symptoms.
He has met with the center’s team in charge of reviewing and following up on confinement procedures in the region, and congratulated all health workers.
Separately, officials of the Madinah Development Authority have toured the city’s central market to supervise the implementation of health-safety measures recommended by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.
At the outset of the outbreak, Saudi Arabia announced strict company guidelines aimed at checking the spread of the virus.
Besides curfews, school closures and suspension of religious pilgrimages and air travel, the Kingdom now requires companies to check workers’ temperature and respiratory health, set up isolation rooms and conduct disinfection campaigns.