Dr Frauk Heard-Bey, the RSAA’s local Honorary Secretary in Abu Dhabi, offers this picture of the impact of COVID-19 in the United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi, 22 May 2020
The jury is still out on how effectively different countries dealt with the corona virus pandemic. Each and every authority is now looking back to the early days of when news of the spread of the virus appeared on their media radar. In hindsight governments and health authorities realise that whenever they reacted – it should always have been even earlier!
Individuals depend entirely on how the authorities in their respective places of residence tackle this novel situation. My husband David and I are very grateful that during this time we are, where we are – in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Four months after the first case, when a Chinese family of four visiting Dubai from Wuhan sought medical help on 23 January, one can look back on an example of mostly very successful crisis management. The UAE with some 9 million inhabitants is not out of the woods yet by a long way, with over 26,000 cases and 233 deaths to date. But a review of the various authorities’ reactions to the situation, which the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March, shows that decisive measures were quickly taken to keep on top of the spread of the virus through the multi-ethnic population.
The UAE is a federation of seven economically different emirates, in which much of the local authority still centres on the tribally-defined ruling families, while the overall authority is underpinned with federal funds provided by oil-producing Abu Dhabi. Daily coverage in the media backed up trust within the general public, that the chief decision-takers, namely the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, coordinated between them the general line of the reaction to the development of the virus in the community. Timely measures were put in place such as closing schools on 7 March and universities soon after. From mid-March arrivals at airports were tested for temperature; sanitiser gels were in evidence at the entrances of clinics, public administration counters, malls and shops; masks were used by many people; public events such as a Music Festival and other concerts, the Book Fair and a Cultural Summit in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Art were cancelled in quick succession. Soon people realised that it was also just a matter of days before malls, parks and other public places would no longer be accessible. To close all mosques was a bold decision. On 22 April it was also decided to postpone for a year to October 2021 the World Exhibition Expo 2020, on which Dubai was pinning so much of its economic future.
Testing many groups of front-line workers and people with symptoms was given absolute priority early on – using ever faster testing kits brought from abroad and later developed locally. By 22 April this was ramped up to 25,795 in one day, performed in many drive-through centres and hospitals – which meant more than one million mostly free tests for one in ten of the inhabitants. By May, testing was declared free for every national citizen (about 15% of the population) and all inhabitants over 50 years of age, along with repeated testing for the high risk groups. Optional testing is available for about £ 75.
The geographical and economic conditions being different in the big population centres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the pandemic soon took a different course in each of these and the smaller emirates. A dangerous cluster was discovered in a densely populated district of old Dubai. The area was completely sealed off, the inhabitants were tested. Infected persons were sent into isolation in a hotel room, to a hospital or one of newly built field clinics. A complete 24-hour curfew declared for Dubai on 4 April was probably due to other clusters in remoter areas, in particular in the numerous labour camps around the huge building sites for Expo 2020. During this two-week-long lockdown, which exempted essential workers, people had to apply by mobile phone for permission to visit the doctor, a supermarket or walk the dog. Police are equipped with temperature sensors – some having them integrated into their helmets. Meanwhile restrictions are progressively relaxing to allow the all-important hospitality business and commerce to resume with strict obligations.
Abu Dhabi proceeded with different, less stringent measures to push the alarming increase in new infections down. There is a less drastic curfew: A very loud signal on every mobile phone delivers a message in Arabic and English to alert the public that all roads are off limits from 8p.m. to 6 a.m. while all public places are being sanitized. This was eased by two hours for Ramadan. Labourers working in Abu Dhabi live mostly in construction camps close to an industrial and business area, which had been moved off the island of Abu Dhabi in the 1970s. In early May, thousands of blue collar workers were screened in a dedicated testing facility in that vicinity. People who tested positive there will be accommodated in a field hospital, where patients have their individual TV screens and earphones in curtained cubicles. During Ramadan there are countless initiatives to get meals to the thousands of fasting migrant Muslims. But thousands of Indians and Pakistanis have registered with their respective embassies to board one of the repatriation flights, which have been organised from all airports in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf – reminiscent of the evacuation efforts in autumn 1990 during the Kuwait crisis.
While reacting to the challenging health situation in the country, the authorities in the UAE did not take their eyes off the importance of keeping the local business community on board in view of the ever more drastic lockdown measures imposed. On 15 March the Targeted Economic Support Scheme TEES worth $ 27.2 billion was launched by the UAE Central Bank to help banks to support retail and business customers during the coming one year. On 13 April the UAE Central Bank met with all banks to urge them to support the private sector with un-bureaucratic loans, and on 16 May a further stimulus packet of about £ 66 billion was announced from federal and local government sources. It remains unclear whether all this help would benefit primarily those companies, with majority national ownership – which is the case by law for most business arrangements. The extent to which businesses, big and small, manage to stay afloat has of course repercussions on the continued residence of millions of expatriate employees in the country.
The UAE has had an impressive track record as an international donor over many years. Abu Dhabi’s previous Ruler and the federation’s first President, Shaikh Zayed, had himself institutionalised sharing his country’s sudden wealth with less fortunate others. Nowadays, the leadership knows well, how to use aid as a trump card for soft diplomacy and to enhance the UAE’s international prestige. Giving aid is not confined to finance, it also takes the form of sending field hospitals, clearing mines, spearheading vaccination against polio or saving endangered species. Dubai’s humanitarian village is one of several places in the world, where aid agencies pre-position material for a sudden emergency. Often the two national airlines offer to fly such material to where it is urgently needed. In this global pandemic the UAE has sent medical and emergency equipment to nearly 50 countries – including 60 tons of personal protective and medical equipment flown to the United Kingdom on 1 May.
The numbers of infected persons climbed alarmingly in recent weeks to 873 additional cases overnight on 20 May. This is probably due to three factors, firstly dramatic ramping up of testing – 1,6 million to date, but also the fact that once the virus had taken hold in any of the many labour camps up and down the country, it proved a growing challenge to reign in the spread. Lastly, obliging the overwhelmingly Muslim population to desist from socialising in the traditional way during Ramadan did not bring the expected results. That is why, together with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, the UAE is mandating – while detailing hefty fines – a near total nightly curfew and the prohibition of family gatherings for several days over the ‘Id festival which follows the end of Ramadan fasting.
My husband David and I will miss very much congratulating our friends on the ‘Id, as we have also forgone our nightly visits to share the traditions of Ramadan with so many local families. But we trust that by following the rules we will remain in good hands here.