UAE fights Covid-19: From lockdowns to mask-free rules; here is how the government, frontliners tackled pandemic



Emirates announces new mandate as the world marked 1,000 days since the first coronavirus case was reported to WHO in December 2019

[Editor’s Note: Phase 2 of the UAE's strategy to ease Covid restrictions goes into force today, November 7. You can read all about it here. This story on how the UAE tackled the pandemic first appeared in September, when Phase 1 was announced.]

On the evening of Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the old market in Karama was bustling with activity. Parents were preparing themselves for the upcoming school spring break, making sports and toy shops among the most crowded in the famous bazaar.

At around 7pm that same evening, media organisations around the globe broke a news that would change the world everyone knew forever. The World Health Organization (WHO) had just declared the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak a global pandemic. At that time, most of the general public was blissfully unaware of the impact this momentous decision would have on them.

However, officials in the UAE government, healthcare workers, community heroes, members of the travel industry and the education sector knew nothing would ever be the same again.

The disease, which originated in Wuhan, China, has caused 6.54 million casualties worldwide and presented an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work.

The UAE government’s unwavering efforts to curb the spread of the virus remained persistent through implementing exceptional measures and laws aimed at mitigating the impact of the virus in the country.

On Monday, September 26, 2022, health officials in the UAE announced that masks had been made optional in most areas.

Mask-wearing inside flights is no longer a requirement, but airlines can enforce the rule if they deem it necessary, and it is not mandatory in schools. By adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, UAE, under its wise leadership, went from a partial lockdown to a mask-free society in two-and-a-half years.

Frontline heroes tell their stories

As countries worldwide adopted lockdown measures in 2020, including night curfews, governments and private organisations were forced to re-write their operation procedures.

“Except healthcare, everything else had to go online. Government services, education, and even shopping for basic groceries had become an online affair. From then to now, we have come a very long way,” said Naseer Vatanappally, a social worker and community champion who battled Covid-19 from the frontline.

The Dubai businessman had made a name for himself by aiding distressed expatriates. When the outbreak began in the UAE, Vatanappally became the natural choice for workers, many of whom lived in densely populated areas in the Emirate, such as the Naif district in Deira, Dubai.

“People were in a state of absolute fear and panic. Everyone had a million questions. They would call for medical assistance, food supplies, and basic advice on what to do if they had Covid-19,” he said.

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Visit visa holders were stranded in the UAE when the airports were shut down on March 26. Hundreds of expats lost lost their livelihood due to the pandemic. “There were several deaths, many of whom had financial issues, and several other problems,” said Vatanappally.

“However, if it weren’t for the government’s constant guidance and support, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “Today, people have almost forgotten that we lived through a pandemic,” he added.

According to Vatanappally, the Dubai government did an exemplary job in ensuring that its residents were well taken care of by launching novel initiatives like the Green Pass and mandatory testing and isolation of positive patients.

The government also launched online platforms that provided easy-to-understand information and safety standards for retail and tourism establishments. “The National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) kept the public abreast of everything happening in the country. In a matter of weeks, we had absolute confidence that we would overcome this crisis,” he stated.

A shopkeeper at Naif District, Anwar Mohammed remembered being cooped up at home with his seven roommates “for a month and three days”. But what he won’t forget was all the help they received throughout the experience.

“No one in Naif faced any difficulties. Volunteers served us good food twice a day. It was mostly biryani, some fruits, and cold drinks. It was almost like a long holiday — nothing to complain about,” the 28-year-old recalled.

A day of victory for healthcare workers

Earlier this year, Dr Alawi Asheikh-Ali, the deputy director-general of DHA, had said UAE adopted a scientific measure to combat the pandemic. “We worked scientifically; we used clinical experimentations before launching the national vaccination campaign.”

Dr Ali said, “The principle of healthcare requires you to look at society, and the patient gets a comprehensive look as well.”

“The secret lies in taking care of every patient. Our leadership was evident; we had to care for every patient and manage cooperation between different departments, and that’s the secret to UAE’s success,” he added.

Dr Jamal Alkaabi, the undersecretary of the Department of Health, Abu Dhabi, said, “In the crisis framework, the more we are prepared, the easier it is to deal with any emergency.”

Dr Kaabi was among the many battling the pandemic from the frontlines. “There are soldiers and leaders, which is the main reason for our success. I was lucky to have this chance and work with my friends and colleagues in the field,” he added.

Dr Saheer Sainalabdeen, a specialist pulmonologist at Medeor Hospital, one of the first doctors in the country to handle Covid-19 cases, told Khaleej Times, “Initially, there was a lot of misinformation and fears about Covid and mask-wearing.”

“During the summer of 2020, before the vaccine came into action, the strain of the virus that made people sick was terrible. High-risk patients were getting hospitalised with severe symptoms,” said Dr Sainalabdeen. “Moreover, the treatment methodologies weren’t clear then,” he stated.

Since doctors couldn’t treat patients with other ailments in-person, the government launched telemedicine services and strict social distancing protocols for hospitals and clinics, some of which are still in place.

According to the doctor, today, UAE residents are living a different reality. “Thanks to the easy availability of vaccines, people are coming in with very mild symptoms, similar to the mild flu,” he said.

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Dealing with travel restrictions

Another major challenge faced by UAE residents was the implementation of Covid-19 triggered travel restrictions. Afi Ahmed, managing director of Smart Travels, said, “People feared to travel. It was a sector that got hit hardest. Even when things opened up, leisure travel had reached a standstill as people feared contracting the virus. Today, everyone is travelling.”

“The fear has gone from people’s minds, and the government has been lauded for their efforts. Take the example of how the UAE organised Expo 2020, a mega event unlike something the world has ever seen before,” said Ahmed.

Smart Travels arranged 46 charter flights between India and UAE for stranded passengers during the time of travel restrictions. “Now, once the Fifa World Cup begins in Qatar, it looks like people will forget that the pandemic ever happened,” he added.