Will the Qatar World Cup be good for health?

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has hailed the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which starts on November 20, as a “unique opportunity to show how sport can promote health”. WHO, Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health, FIFA and the organizing committee hope to create a “Sports and Health Legacy” aimed at protecting the health of all involved, promoting healthy lifestyles and promoting health in future mass gatherings. But will this world championship really be good for health?

The evidence is not promising. International sporting events provide an opportunity to unite and promote the health benefits of physical activity, but the legacy promises often go unfulfilled. Evidence-based assessment published Lancet In 2021, it was pointed out that the Olympic Games have not improved the physical activity level of the population and are often an untapped opportunity for public health. High-profile sponsors of this World Cup include Budweiser, McDonalds and Coca Cola, companies that aim to profit from unhealthy lifestyles and major carbon polluters.

The event is surrounded by concerns about human rights abuses in Qatar. Qatar’s economy relies on migrant workers – about 2.2 million of Qatar’s 2.9 million population and 95% of the workforce are migrants, many from South and Southeast Asia, who work in construction. Qatar uses a sponsorship system called kafala, which links the legal status of migrant workers to their employer. Although 2020 introduced reforms such as allowing workers to change jobs and a minimum wage, workers are still exploited and excluded from other national labor laws. Workers have described overcrowded accommodation, malnutrition and neglect in relation to work hazards. Access to healthcare depends on employers, and only 7% of Qataris are believed to be covered by at least one social security benefit. The Qatari government’s disregard for the health rights of migrant workers is contrary to international standards and ignores the serious consequences for the health of migrant workers and the sustainable development of the country and the world.

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Another big issue with the event is the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Same-sex sexual acts are criminalized in Qatar; it also operates Sharia courts, which can sentence Muslim men who engage in same-sex intimacy to death. Campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights is not allowed and people cannot legally change their gender. Qatar’s World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman’s comments referring to homosexuality as a “damage to the mind” are indicative of stigmatization in the country and perpetuate long-standing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in football. While there have been reassurances about the safety of LGBTQ+ visitors, calls for LGBTQ+ people to abide by Qatari laws by hiding their identities threaten efforts to ensure global equality for this community.

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There is strong debate about how footballers, pundits and fans should engage in these matters. Some might suggest focusing on football. But if the World Cup really wants to ensure a legacy of health, one way is to speak out against such injustice and use the event as a platform to call for change. Same-sex sexual acts are criminalized in 69 jurisdictions worldwide, including 32 out of 54 African countries. Such behavior must be decriminalized because it has devastating health consequences and perpetuates societal homophobia and transphobia. Migrant workers around the world are often discriminated against and excluded from health care services. In 2019, there were 169 million international migrant workers; two-thirds of migrant workers are in high-income countries, often from low- and middle-income countries. UCL-Lancet The Migration and Health Commission outlines the valuable contribution migrant workers make to the global economy and how this often harms their health. Common barriers to accessing health care include exclusion from health care rights, language barriers, and fear of deportation. The exclusion of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people from many health systems hinders progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Human rights abuses against LGBTQ+ people and migrant workers are global health issues, not just in Qatar. The health legacy of the 2022 World Cup may still be in the making. Not least, the World Cup is an opportunity to consider social responsibility and for sports organizations, world health authorities, medical journals and all associations planning global events to reflect on the countries they work with and question their health impact. It’s not just about what happens on the field.

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