Dubai’s Expo 2020 reveals 3 worker deaths from COVID-19

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A worker talks on the phone by an installation honoring the foreign laborers who built Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Dubai’s Expo 2020 on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, offered conflicting figures for how many workers had been killed on site during construction of the massive world’s fair, first saying five and then later three. In a later statement, Expo apologized and described the initial figure as a “mistake.” (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Dubai’s Expo 2020 acknowledged for the first time on Sunday that three workers had died from the coronavirus over the course of building the world’s fair during the pandemic, as the prestigious event draws scrutiny of labor conditions in the United Arab Emirates.

When asked at a press conference about deaths among Expo’s vast foreign workforce, spokesperson Sconaid McGeachin said three workers had died from the virus in addition to three from construction incidents, without specifying when. She declined to describe the extent of the coronavirus outbreak among workers on site.

McGeachin again claimed the information about worker casualties was previously available, without elaborating. However, authorities in the run-up to the $7 billion fair did not provide any overall statistics for worker fatalities, injuries or coronavirus infections despite repeated requests from The Associated Press and other journalists.

The statement comes a day after Expo offered conflicting reports about how many workers had died in industrial incidents on site, before settling on three.

The UAE long has faced criticism from human rights activists over its poor treatment of the legions of low-paid migrant laborers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who power the country’s economy. Dubai has gambled billions on its elaborate World Expo, hoping to make it a huge tourist attraction and symbol of the country’s allure.

But problems have emerged. The European Parliament last month urged nations not to take part in Expo, citing the UAE’s “inhumane practices against foreign workers” that it said worsened during the pandemic.

To pay tribute to the thousands of workers who toiled to build the fairgrounds from scratch, Expo features a worker’s monument, nestled between a performance stage and a popular Dubai bar chain.

Scores of somber stone columns jut up from the ground, wrapped with an incised roll call listing names of Expo laborers. The installation remains largely unmarked, save for a small plaque that reads: “Expo 2020 Dubai dedicates this monument to all our brothers and sisters who built the site.”

On Sunday, maintenance workers in bright orange vests knelt beside the stones, squinting and searching for names. When asked what they thought about the monument, the workers said they’d been repeatedly instructed by Expo authorities to direct all reporters who asked them questions to the event’s official media center.

The global extravaganza also has renewed criticism from human rights groups of the UAE’s restrictions on free expression.

At a press conference Saturday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian answered a question about the European Parliament’s concerns over labor abuses in the UAE, saying that France would not join the Parliament’s call for an Expo boycott and instead raise any potential issues with Emirati authorities “behind closed doors.” However, the sensitive exchange was inexplicably missing from Expo’s official transcript of the news conference, raising concerns about transparency at the site.

“I will look into that,” said McGeachin when asked about the omission. “I would like to say that this is an oversight.”

Meanwhile, Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni flew in to tour his nation’s pavilion at Expo. He called the Emirati effort to build the Expo village “a challenge to the Africans” as the UAE had “turned a desert into a center of affluence.”

“Yesterday when I arrived, they took me for COVID test,” he said. “In Africa, sometimes we say, ‘Big people should not be checked.’”

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report.

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