The term lockdown has a more literal meaning in Kuwait than in places like the United States where a global public health crisis has been electrified by the politics of fear. One year since novel coronavirus was first detected in Kuwait, it has returned with rage, haunting many with lockdown memories.
When the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Kuwait in February 2020, government ministers took action immediately. On the eve of the National and Liberation holiday, festivities were canceled and students celebrated an extended, week-long holiday break—a long weekend in year’s past. Before the end of the holiday, however, in-person classes were canceled altogether, with students joining the growing ranks of online learners throughout the world.
During the early stage of the pandemic in 2020, the case rate in Kuwait inched skyward, as it did in most countries. Reaching more than a thousand new cases a day by May in a country with a population roughly the size of Oregon, health ministers imposed a 22-hour curfew. Enforced. By the end of the three-week, nationwide, curfew, new cases had declined to a steady 600 to 800 a day, and stayed there throughout the gradual lifting of the curfew, a few hours at a time, district by district in accordance with the rate of virus spread.
By the time I arrived in Hawally in October, I scarcely noticed protective measures that were any more stringent than Portland—other than the 14-day in-home quarantine during which time I was not permitted to leave the six-room flat I share with Friend. No one came knocking on my door to verify I was home, as some of my colleagues experienced. Each day, I ventured out anyway, to the cluttered, marble staircase for an excursion down to the ground floor and back up to the eighth, usually several times. In a fog of stale monotony I could never count accurately how many quarantine hills I hiked in a day.
Later I learned from my neighbors that the summer lockdown period meant exactly that: During curfew hours the residents of Kuwait effectively were locked inside. At the curfew’s peak, they were prohibited from setting foot out of their homes 22 hours a day, leaving the streets clear for police cruisers to patrol in vivid color. At night, the empty streets were protected by an army parade, headed by battle-ready tanks and followed by trucks of uniformed soldiers distributing bread and water.
With a prohibition on driving, the streets were open for two hours during the heat of the day, crowding the otherwise empty streets with the hordes of inmates trapped in the mountains of 10-story apartment buildings that make up Hawally homes. Pedestrian shoppers were allowed to purchase groceries once each week, by appointment only, wading through the currents of pandemic prisoners. Barbed wire surrounded the community to prevent residents from leaving the densely populated migrant district. Tents were erected as makeshift police stations near the community borders.
The extreme curfew coincided with a reduction and gradual stabilization of the number of new daily COVID-19 diagnoses nationwide, while testing the psychological health of expats and Kuwaitis alike. Making the most of home-imprisonment, neighbors in my building created gathering places for small groups in the common areas inside. Kuwait’s endearing charm faded to a fondness of the rough and ragged for many expats who endured the summer of coronavirus.
By November, as COVID-19 blazed through Europe and the United States at alarming rates, new cases in Kuwait fell, at first gradually, then plummeting to less than 200 a day by the end of the year. With the optimism of improvement and vaccine the wings, triumph was in sight. School leaders across Kuwait applied to the Ministry of Education to resume in-person classes under meticulously devised safety plans.
Ever cautious, with just a few hours notice, the airport was again shuttered temporarily during the peak winter travel season in December, stranding many who were away on holiday recovering from the summer of Coronaville. When the airport re-opened vacationers returned with clean COVID reports, were tested in country upon arrival, and tested again during their 14-day quarantine.
To no avail, novel coronavirus cases have climbed since. New diagnoses had been so low, at first I wondered if the new case count was a trend or just a random fluke of the day? Then by National and Liberation Day in February—one year on—new cases again surged to more than a thousand a day. My wall of Brady Bunch avatars that students have become reminisced about the larger-than-life carnival a year ago celebrating Kuwaiti independence and freedom from their neighboring invaders. Then, unknowingly, they left the building forever.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. A student voice coming from the Brady Bunch Zoom box nearly choked on the poetry reading as the year of corona rushed in to fill the space that no longer is.
Once again, National and Liberation Day festivities were canceled. First a nine-hour, overnight curfew was scarcely noticeable. Spas and salons closed. Restaurants restricted to takeaway service only. As the number of positive diagnoses continues to increase each day a new 12-hour curfew has been announced, requiring residents to be off the streets by 5:00 in the evening. Schools will not re-open to students before September.
Will Kuwait return to the punitive restrictions imposed during the pandemic summer? The vaccination campaign here in Kuwait is well underway, though it does not symbolize a clear escape route in the near term. Many of us living and working here in Kuwait are ineligible entirely because of the lockdown’s attack on bureaucratic processes that have prevented new arrivals since August from being issued residency permits that are required for vaccination. Teachers may, once again, get an exemption to the requirements to protect the students, as we were granted with our unusual fast-track entry visa.
The unspoken threat of confinement amidst COVID’s relentless grind is laced with tidbits of hope. Minor adjustments to the curfew have already been announced, allowing extended evening hours for pedestrians, and restaurant delivery until 10:00 pm. My neighbors who surfed the curfew storm last year have already learned how to live lockdown with their sanity intact.
In every moment, no matter how dire, lies an opportunity. This moment is not yet dire—we are all healthy, even my colleagues who have survived the evil beast. Perhaps hard curfew with my colleagues and neighbors will be my fast-track opportunity to experience the social bonds that will make Hawally home.
*A special thank you to my neighbors who shared generously their memories and experiences, and who have helped me to understand that curfew is a time for living not for limits.