DOHA • Qatar yesterday began enforcing the world's toughest penalties of up to three years' imprisonment for failing to wear masks in public, as it battles one of the world's highest coronavirus infection rates.
More than 30,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the tiny Gulf country - 1.1 per cent of the 2.75 million population - although just 15 people have died.
Only the micro-states of San Marino and the Vatican had higher per capita infection rates, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Violators of Qatar's new rules will face up to three years in jail and fines of as much as US$55,000 (S$78,600).
Drivers alone in their vehicles are exempt from the requirement, but several expats said police were stopping cars at checkpoints to warn them of the new rules before they came into force.
Most of the customers who gathered outside money lenders along Doha's Banks Street yesterday wore masks, while those who did not produced a face covering when asked. "From today it's very strict," said Mr Majeed, a taxi driver who wore a black neoprene mask while waiting for business in the busy pedestrian area yesterday.
Wearing a mask is now mandatory in around 50 countries, although scientists are divided on its effectiveness.
The authorities in Chad have made it an offence to be unmasked in public, on pain of 15 days in prison. In Morocco, similar rules can see violators jailed for three months and fined up to 1,300 dirhams (S$505).
The Qatari authorities have warned that gatherings during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan may have increased infections.
Mr Abdullatif al-Khal, co-chair of Qatar's National Pandemic Preparedness Committee, said last Thursday that there was "a huge risk in gatherings of families" for Ramadan meals.
"(They) led to a significant increase in the number of infections among Qataris," he said.
Mosques, along with schools, malls and restaurants, remain closed in Qatar due to Covid-19.
But construction sites are still open as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, although foremen and government inspectors are attempting to enforce social distancing rules.
Officials have said workers at three stadiums have tested positive for the virus. Masks have been compulsory for construction workers since April 26.
A 12-strong team of masked labourers kept their distance from one another as they worked under the baking sun on a road project in Doha's blue-collar Msheireb district yesterday.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers were quarantined in Doha's gritty Industrial Area after a number of infections were confirmed there in mid-March, but the authorities have begun to ease restrictions.
Mr Khal said that most new cases were among migrant workers, although there has been a jump in infections among Qataris. He said the country had not yet reached the peak of its contagion.
Human rights groups have warned that Gulf labourers' cramped living conditions, communal food preparation areas and shared bathrooms could undermine social distancing efforts and speed up the spread of the virus.