What the new Covid rules in Abu Dhabi tell us about what the future holds

New measures coming into effect on Friday represent a balanced approach to opening up

People go through the new EDE scanner system at Deerfields Mall, which instantly detects whether or not an individual has Covid-19, and reveals the result on a handheld receiver in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Quietly, coronavirus infection rates have been declining this summer in the UAE. The lowest daily number of new infections this year was recorded on Wednesday afternoon, when 1,089 new cases were announced. The daily figures for Monday and Tuesday reported similar data, suggesting the tide is ebbing for now, at least.

If new cases are gradually trending downwards, the amount of active cases is also dipping, with officials reporting less than 19,000 active cases on Wednesday, compared to 21,000 cases earlier this month. These are both indicators for cautious optimism, especially so when vaccination rates are so high and the commitment to affordable or free testing remains locked in place.

The National Crisis Emergency and Disaster Management Authority reported earlier this week that approximately 83 per cent of the population has received one vaccine dose and more than 73 per cent of the UAE has been fully inoculated. To date, more than 70 million tests have also been conducted in the country.

Friday marks another phase in the chronology of the pandemic locally, with new measures coming into force in Abu Dhabi.

Public places will be able to operate with increased capacity levels from this weekend. They will be able to do so because the new rules also say that only those with Al Hosn “green status” on the emirate’s Covid-19 safety app will be admitted to those places, such as restaurants, cafes, malls and shops. Green status on the app is provided to those who are vaccinated and have a valid PCR test, or are under 16 years old.

Inevitably, there will be some anxiety about the changes among tourists, residents and citizens, which is only natural, given the app previously experienced outages in June. The uncertainty prompted by the technology falling down, albeit briefly, gave birth to a wider sense of anxiousness that only subsided when the glitch was resolved.

In the multiple phases of the pandemic, however, Friday feels like another significant moment, as it starts to flesh out what the next few months will look like. Almost since the pandemic began, we have wondered how and when it would end and what would be left behind when it was gone.

Protocol updates and rule changes will obviously be a feature of our lives for a while yet, even if few of us were prepared for the prolonged exercise in mental gymnastics we have all had to undertake to keep track of the amendments. The pandemic’s multiple variants and fast-moving nature make it impossible to imagine any other scenario. No wonder this is an age of uncertainty.

Earlier this week, Abu Dhabi also updated its travel green list, adding three countries – Ireland, Malta and Sweden – to the territories from where people can travel to the emirate without needing to quarantine on arrival. Six countries, including Israel and Italy, were removed from the green list.

So what are the takeaways from these developments? If high vaccination rates have helped steer infections downwards in the UAE, then follow-up booster shots will be part of our future, not just this year but for some time to come. Official statements have said as much, particularly as experts globally say that eradication of the virus now seems improbable.

And if eradication is now unlikely, where does that leave travel in the longer term?

New Zealand, where borders have been largely shut for months, announced a short lockdown this week after detecting a single new infection – but, more generally, border restrictions cannot stay in place indefinitely. The world needs to be able to move more easily. Counterintuitively, a world without large-scale vaccine distribution last year was easier to navigate than life with deepening vaccine rollouts today.

The Economist newspaper argued this month for travel restrictions to be scrapped all together. That should certainly be the long-term ambition. In the meantime, rigorous testing and tracing at borders is probably a more expedient and realistic response to get more travel corridors operating. More focus should be placed on getting humanitarian exceptions in place too and vaccine certificates more widely recognised.

Now may be the time to listen to the quiet rather than the noise

We also probably need to change our tack on how we measure the pandemic.

Earlier this year, three government ministers in Singapore wrote a piece for the The Straits Times titled Living normally with Covid-19. One of the things they called for was more focus on outcomes rather than inputs.

Daily reporting of new cases can provide an incomplete portrait. How many people require hospital treatment or die as a consequence of contracting the disease tells us more, although only tracking the headline figure will be a hard habit to break. Our reactions to higher or lower cases tend to mimic those of a skittish stock market day trader.

Now may be the time to listen to the quiet – which is that cases are subsiding, vaccination rates are high and case outcomes are better as we understand more about the virus – rather than the noise of what can seem like an unending crisis stretching out far into the distance.

More generally, face masks, distancing and working from home where appropriate to do so will almost certainly remain part of our lives for many months to come. I suspect that if those measures help schools remain open this academic year and international travel to become easier, that many of us would be happy to continue to take that prescription for a long while.

Published: August 18, 2021, 2:00 PM