Qatar has been preparing to host the World Cup 2022 since it was chosen to host the tournament in 2010. The country engaged in scenario planning, trying to deal with the geopolitical challenges in the region, which might impact the tournament. One of the unseen challenges was a global pandemic, which would paralyze most public activities and mega-events in the region. .
As part of preparing the nation to host the World Cup 2022, Qatar has been investing in its health ecosystem. The government has increased its health care capacity by establishing 12 new primary care centers and 10 new hospitals. The health sector freed up 3,012 acute care beds and 749 (PDF) intensive care unit beds to deal with surge in demand for health care resources.
Our study, conducted between February 2021 and May 2021, examined several Middle East case studies of initial response to the pandemic and the challenges, successes, and innovations in meeting pandemic demands.
Challenges and Response
Early in the pandemic, Qatar's public health officials struggled with identifying COVID-19 cases, and the lack of knowledge and experience of the disease was a major challenge. There was limited space and supplies for any needed expansions in the health system. Qatar made a strategic decision from the onset of the pandemic to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients in separate buildings from the existing medical facilities to prevent the virus from spreading to non–COVID-19 patients. As a result, the required infrastructure was not ready to cope with the sudden surge in patient admissions. Local health care providers we interviewed shared that despite expansion of health care capacity, the health system in Qatar is not designed to face a surge of hospital and ICU admissions.
To add to the challenge, the Qatari authorities had to take on an active role in closely monitoring social media and dispelling rumors related to COVID-19 due to the rapid flow of misinformation on various platforms. Rumors related to the nature and origin of the virus, and later on the effectiveness and side effects of the vaccines widely and quickly spread, contributing to the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the general public.
Despite expansion of health care capacity, the health system in Qatar is not designed to face a surge of hospital and ICU admissions.Share on Twitter
Similar to other countries we studied, Qatar also experienced an increase in mental health conditions during the pandemic. Our interviews with local health care providers indicated that an increase in burnout and anxiety cases among the medical workforce was due to extended hours and the lack of knowledge of the virus.
Successes and Innovations
The Qatari government adopted a spectrum of policies and health measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, one of the first being international travel restrictions in order to prevent the entry of confirmed cases from outside the country. Schools were closed as the country experienced the first wave of the pandemic, and students switched to online learning. Additionally, authorities attempted to prevent the virus from spreading by isolating an entire industrial area where workers lived (the first hotspot of the pandemic).
Qatar encouraged its innovation ecosystem, consisting of research institutes, universities, and tech startups, to play a role in fighting the pandemic. Among the public health measures that proved successful were contact tracing and early containment; expansion of testing capacity; and facilitation of health service delivery to non–COVID-19 patients.
The country successfully created a COVID-19 contact tracing application, Ehteraz (PDF) , and on May 22, 2020, all citizens and expats were required to download and install Ehteraz on their mobile phones. The system allowed the authorities to contain the spread of the virus by identifying the disease transmission chains and alert users if they were exposed to confirmed cases. Multiple public and private testing sites were made available to increase testing capacity such as through hospital walk-ins, drive-through swab centers, primary health care centers, and private clinics. The early identification and isolation of infected people helped contain the spread of the virus in the country.
Early identification and isolation of infected people helped contain the spread of the virus in Qatar.Share on Twitter
To reduce health burden and pandemic-related stress in the general public, the Ministry of Public Health established the Urgent Consultation Services to improve health care delivery for non–COVID-19 patients. This service was launched in March 2020 and received 5,000 calls per week, with a response rate of 95 percent and a satisfaction rate of 88 percent. In a similar vein, the government engaged with local tech startups to facilitate telehealth services for the population in Qatar. For example, Meddy, a startup founded in Qatar, developed a local online appointment-booking platform to offer virtual medical services during the pandemic.
Qatar's strict contact tracking and tracing policy, the launching of a vaccination campaign in December 2020, and media campaigns that promoted awareness of the importance of taking preventive measures and getting the vaccine were important steps in pandemic response. Since the last wave in January 2022, Qatar's overall number of cases and deaths has decreased to some of the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. When it comes to the vaccination program, according to the latest statistics, Qatar has vaccinated 90.3 percent of its population, with more than 6,670,000 vaccine doses administered since the beginning of the campaign.
As Qatar prepares to host the FIFA World Cup 2022 later this year, FIFA, WHO, and Qatar have partnered in an effort to ensure that the event is healthy and safe. Qatar plans to maintain precautionary measures to contain the spread of the virus during the tournament and the health sector has gained experience during the pandemic that might inform response to future spikes in demand for health system resources.
Hamad Al-Ibrahim is an assistant policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Nazia Wolters is a policy analyst and Mahshid Abir is a senior physician policy researcher at RAND.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.