Qatar has witnessed the world’s highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate but one of the lowest death rates due to extensive testing, a young population and significant healthcare spending.
With 40,702 cases per million since the pandemic began, Qatar is followed by Bahrain, which has seen nearly 29,000 cases per million, and San Marino at more than 21,000.
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Qatar is home to some 2.88 million people, more than two million of whom are migrant workers.
Highest per-capita infection rate
Qatar’s health authorities are adamant their high per-capita infection rate is down to one factor above all: Testing.
Almost 600,000 people have been tested for the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday – that is more than a fifth of the population.
“Because of our low threshold for testing, we have identified many more asymptomatic and mild cases of the virus than other countries,” the chair of the National Strategic Group on COVID-19 Abdullatif al-Khal told the AFP news agency.
But beyond that, Qatar has faced local outbreaks that spread fast because of its reliance on foreign labourers living in cramped, unsanitary conditions, as it transforms the country leading up to the 2022 football World Cup.
The outlying Industrial Area of the capital, Doha, the scene of the country’s first surge of reported cases, was sealed by security forces and flooded with public health teams to contain the outbreak earlier this year.
Officials also say strict new rules were brought in to improve hygiene in migrant workers’ accommodation.
What was the testing strategy?
Unlike some Gulf countries, which have opted for dragnet testing, Doha zeroed in on groups more vulnerable to infection, including migrant labourers and Qataris returning from overseas.
More than one in five residents have now been tested, and at the height of the pandemic, more than one in four of those tests were positive, according to a laboratory source.
Why is the death rate so low?
Gas-rich Qatar’s heavy investment in its healthcare system in recent years, coupled with its young population (an average age of 31.5 years), helped keep its death rate among the lowest in the world, authorities and experts say.
A total of 194 people have died as of Tuesday – only 0.17 percent of the total number of those infected – according to official statistics.
Qatar’s death rate of 67 deaths per million population is the second-lowest in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, behind only the United Arab Emirates at 37 per million. By contrast, the United States, the worst affected country, has reported 523 deaths per million.
“They probably have [one of] the best health systems – they are well-equipped and they were well prepared,” Abdinasir Abubakar, from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office for the Eastern Mediterranean, said.
Qatar’s critical care infrastructure also proved resilient, in contrast to some countries where the death rate has been much higher.
The Gulf state’s intensive care units reached only 76 percent capacity at the peak of the outbreak, the health ministry said.
Is there risk of a second spike?
As of August 20, Qatar’s “R” rate, the number of people each infected person goes on to infect, had dropped to “well below one and remains stable”, said Khal.
The country has posted new daily infection rates hovering in the 200-range in the past week – but those are far lower than the 2,355 cases reported on May 30.
“Qatar has partially lifted some restrictions and we could expect some resurgence,” said the WHO’s Abubakar. “But we expect they will maintain some measures and intensify testing and tracing, and management of cases.”
Physical distancing rules are enforced in workplaces and public areas, masks are required in shops and when outdoors for reasons other than exercise.
Wary of another wave of infections, authorities have taken extraordinary measures, even including the public naming of Qataris breaching self-quarantine – something unprecedented in the traditional society.