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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Six months after the Villaggio fire – how has Qatar changed?

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UPDATE: The day after this post ran, A Doha court adjourned the hearing for a fifth time as defendants requested Civil Defense officials, Nike and insurance agents be charged. The hearing will resume Dec. 19.

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It’s been six months since 19 people perished in a fire at Villaggio mall. The tragedy, considered one of Qatar’s biggest losses in recent memory, sparked more questions than there were answers – namely, how could this happen?

Two committees have been formed to answer that question. The technical conclusion is that 13 children, four teachers and two firefighters died due to a perfect storm of negligence and lack of preparedness, in addition to thick smoke and malfunctioning sprinkler systems.

Who, if anyone, will be held responsible for this negligence remains to be seen, but victims’ relatives are hoping justice will be served during tomorrow’s criminal hearing – though the proceedings have already been postponed four times due to the absence of key defendants. 

Here’s a look at some of what has changed in the months after the fire, and what has stayed the same:

Mall safety

Following the May 28 fire, Villaggio closed it doors for more than three months. During this time, storefronts damaged by smoke, ash and water were repaired and goods replaced. The area most devastated by the fire remains closed. 

The mall reopened in September with little fanfare. No acknowledgment of the deaths that transpired months earlier was made. Trinkets left by grieving residents were removed. Mall officials did not even hold a staff meeting to discuss new safety protocols, if any, employees there have said.

In an interview with Doha News, Jane Weekes, mother of two-year-old triplets who were killed in the fire, said:

The mall owners and management issued no statement of what, if any improvements have been made to its building structure, materials, safety systems and procedures, and they continue to not enforce basic health and safety regulations such as the ban on smoking in public buildings.

We all trusted that Villaggio was safe 6 months ago, how do we know it’s safe now?

Shortly after the fire, Civil Defense officials ordered that City Center mall close for flouting safety regulations. Three weeks later, that mall also reopened, but proffered no list of changes to residents to prove it was safer than before.

However, emergency preparedness does seem to have improved. Malls have held fire drills to practice evacuation methods and have posted maps highlighting all of the exits in case of an emergency.

Still, incidents like the recent malfunctioning of a children’s ride at Villaggio’s Gondolania Fun Park continue to cast doubt on the safety of Qatar’s malls.

Nursery safety

As discussed in yesterday’s story, Qatar has announced plans to tighten safety regulations for nurseries here. 

Most children’s daycare centers operate out of converted residential villas, many of which sorely need a safety update. But it is unclear whether this mandate will really improve standards or is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the fire, which trapped those on the first floor of Gympanzee and led to their deaths by smoke inhalation. 

A failure to convey the exact requirements to nursery managers and uneven enforcement of the rules suggest the latter.

Qatar’s international reputation

Above everything else, the lack of transparency in the managing of the Villaggio fire and its aftermath has hurt Qatar’s credibility abroad. All 19 people killed were expats, and stories about the tragedy, the constant court delays and the lack of communication with the families of those killed continue to circulate globally. 

In a recent editorial, New Zealand newspaper Marlborough Express writes:

Qatar’s international reputation stands sorely at risk from the judicial weakness shown to this point. From this distance, the court – and by extension the Qatari legal process – has the sorry appearance of impotent inertia, heading towards corruption.

Until there is closure of some sort – whether that be a court verdict, direct communication to the victims’ relatives or clear safety improvements in public spaces – the world will continue to shake its head over this tragedy.

What do you think has changed since the fire?

Credit: Photos by Shabina S. Khatri

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