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How the Pandemic Affects Expats

by Laura Powell-Corbett

The coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the world, with second and even third waves of infection starting globally. It feels as though the world is a long way from being “normal” once again, and it’s unknown what “normal” will look like when it comes.

Then you step outside and look around Qatar, and things look more hopeful. Here, life had slowly started to look like how it once did, with restaurants reopening back in the summer and schools more recently. It feels like we’re living in a bubble away from the horror we see playing out in other countries, including those we once called home.

While many of us are thankful to live here safely, our thoughts still turn to those we love living in other countries. Many are currently living through strict national lockdowns.

And with international travel still significantly restricted, the chances of a reunion anytime soon are slim. It feels as though we’re living worlds apart from those closest to us.

Mental Health

Even without a pandemic, expat living is an emotional rollercoaster. Noemi Zaccaria, a writer on InterNations, an online expat forum, puts it perfectly: “Great experiences full of excitement take turns with negative feelings and anxiety-filled moments, especially when facing a brand-new reality for the first time.” She notes that the pressures that come with culture shocks, homesickness, sleep deprivation, and endless paperwork already take their toll on expats’ mental health. Add to this a pandemic and closed borders, and the impact is probably greater than ever.

Many expats feel as though they are stranded from their homes of origin and their families living there feel the same way. While expats choose this life knowing that it would separate them from their families, they also knew that the option to jump on a plane was available. This meant that family were often present at all major life events. For instance, having families visit when babies were born or heading home shortly after to introduce them to the new additions were both viable options. So, you never felt too far away. All this changed when only residents could re-enter Qatar, with the added worry for some that returning might not be possible.

Sharon, a British expat in Doha, had her second baby during the lockdown. Her family in both countries felt the profound guilt that came from her daughter being unable to meet her extended family. In the end, Sharon and her family in Qatar travelled to the UK at the beginning of December, making it back before the government imposed new quarantine rules. The impact of her trip on her family, both immediate and extended, was immeasurable. Visiting and introducing her baby girl had such a positive impact on Sharon, who also said she was thankful to make it back to Doha on time. Despite her gratefulness, Sharon realises that she will not see her family again until the borders reopen.

Separations Across Continents

As the pandemic continues, we see an increasing number of families separated internationally as the rules continue to change. Borders are opened then closed, and quarantine measures are applied then removed. With this level of uncertainty over the ability to leave and re-enter Qatar, many of us face difficult travel decisions when critical circumstances arise. There are elderly or unwell relatives that we want to see. Life is short, and for many, the idea of missing the chance to see loved ones before they pass away is unthinkable.

But knowing you can visit may not be easy either, as travel stresses can be magnified in this climate. Christine, who headed to Chile to see her very ill parents, needed several documents to enter the country. The stress of obtaining twelve separate pieces of documentation, plus all the emotions that came with travelling, took a major toll on her mental health. When she finally arrived in Chile, there were further complications when Chile moved from the Ministry of Public Health’s green list of countries to the red list. This meant that she had to quarantine when she returned to Qatar and spend the holiday season separated from her husband and children. This situation left Christina anxious and with traumatic memories from the trip. It took her two weeks after returning to her family in Doha to start to feel recovered. All of this has left her determined not to travel again during the pandemic.

Not only is there the worry of being separated from extended family, but there are also many immediate family members who are now apart. Laura, a British mum of three, has to stay in the UK with her children while her husband starts his new Doha job. She does not know how long they will be apart and longs to start her new life with him in Qatar. Instead, she is in the UK, living out the national lockdown as the sole carer of her three children who just want to see Daddy and don’t understand why they can’t at the moment.

Explaining to your children why they cannot get on a plane and visit the ones they love the way they used to every summer is difficult and heartbreaking. For many younger children, video calling is not enough. It doesn’t hold their attention, and they feel frustrated with seeing their relatives on the screen while not being able to touch them. Many expats are worrying about the impact this is having on their children’s relationships with others.

Finances

We have seen many redundancies being made, both globally and within Qatar, at a time where the job market is not buoyant. The threat of this happening is a massive worry for many families. Losing your job in Qatar is more than just losing your income—for those sponsored by their company, it’s a loss of their whole way of life as they must leave the country.

For some, there is also the added complexity of being married to someone of a different nationality while not holding a resident visa for their country. For Lisa, a Swede married to a French national, the main worry is where they will go should they have to leave Qatar. Jackie is a New Zealand national with a British husband and children who has similar concerns. She worries that if her husband loses his job here, she will have to live separately from him and her children. This is because she does not know if she could go to the UK with her family, or if they are allowed to enter New Zealand. Plus, like many expats, Jackie and her husband are unsure of when they will see their elderly parents.

Education

Ren Wlasiuk (@wellness_with_ren on Instagram) is a life coach who works with teenagers in Qatar and says that many are concerned about their higher education prospects. She says that they are worried about not having university places this year after so many students were displaced in 2020 and exams were cancelled. Some are also stuck deliberating between staying in Qatar with their families or leaving for countries like the UK, where it’s unclear if and when in-person courses will resume. This uncertainty, she said, is wreaking havoc on their mental well-being.

Guilt

For some, living in Qatar through the pandemic adds a complex layer of guilt. Here, we are safe and can live relatively normal lives. Schools are open for face-to-face learning and people can socialise. Yet, friends and family in other countries are struggling. Sara, a British expat, sees her friends at home suffering mentally and financially as schools and entire job sectors are shut down. She feels guilty that her life here is comparatively normal, and yet, is still very thankful that she is in Qatar right now instead of the UK.

Helena, a South African national, feels guilty about the frustration, anger, and misery she feels because of the pandemic. “How dare I feel this way when I am, in fact, privileged to be able to be in this position?” She says.

The Flip Side

While there are many negative thoughts and feelings about the current climate, one clear theme stands out—many of us are grateful to be in Qatar, despite everything. Shafaq, for instance, has reached a middle ground. She has learnt to appreciate the blessing of living in Qatar while accepting that this does not mitigate the worry she feels about being away from her family.

We are all living week to week, knowing that at any time, anything could change. So, Roxy, a mum to two, chooses to focus on the positives and what she can do now over what she can’t. Rather than focusing on the fact she can’t jump on a plane to see her family or hug her dad, she focuses on how fortunate she is to be in Doha where the virus is more under control. By practising a positive mindset and daily gratitude, she is finding it easier to cope.

An End in Sight?

As we see vaccinations roll out across Qatar and the globe, it feels as though there is light at the end of the tunnel. This potential end in sight and the hope that we will soon reunite with our families overseas makes the wait in the meantime a bit easier.

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