What the UAE and Singapore got right in controlling Covid-19

In their philosophies and policy, both nations have some overlaps in their approach to the pandemic

Passengers use the smart passport gates at Dubai International Airport on February 21. Travel is getting a little easier, with rules being relaxed in some destinations. AFP
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One of the challenges of the past two years of the pandemic has been the requirement to live with long bouts of uncertainty and risk.

We have all had to make regular calculations about how much unpredictability we are prepared to accept, while trying to live our lives as normally as possible. Most of us will have spent at least some of our time looking at the daily Covid-19 case figures to determine whether we felt more or less at risk than we did the day, week or month before.

When cases go down locally, as they currently are, we probably feel safer and less at risk, especially so if our immediate community has been unaffected. When they are tracking upwards or a higher percentage of tests are recorded as positive nationwide, the sense of threat rises accordingly.

The psychological aspect of the years-long pandemic has been especially fatigue-inducing and learning to live with Covid-19 has proved to be a tough education for many of us. Similarly, global policymakers have had to weigh hard choices while dealing with possible new waves of infection as the virus mutated. Rarely have so many had to balance risk and reward for so long.

Visitors to the Dubai Expo 2020 on February 28, as the UAE dropped mandatory wearing of face masks outside. AFP

This week, Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE Minister of State for Advanced Technology, told the UN Security Council that the pandemic was "far from over" while calling for faster action in getting vaccines distributed to poorer or conflict-challenged countries. It was a timely reminder that there is still no room for complacency amid this global inequity and that only those countries that have had good access to vaccines are currently able to truly imagine their post-pandemic world.

Global Covid-19 cases have this week breached the 500 million mark since the pandemic began, with a significant percentage of those cases diagnosed in this calendar year.

The UAE is within touching distance of the pandemic being over

By contrast, the past couple of months have felt like a turning point has been reached in the UAE, with daily cases declining from their Omicron variant-driven January peak and restrictions steadily being eased in many aspects of daily life.

The country is in the fortunate position of potentially being within touching distance of the pandemic being over, with infections moving downwards, health outcomes improving for those who do contract the virus and comprehensive vaccination rates. High levels of trust in leadership and coherent policy making have significantly aided recovery, which is why the country continues to score highly on global covid resilience indices.

Bit by bit, the measures that have long been in place to control the virus, such as outdoor face mask mandates and capacity limits in public places have been released. Abu Dhabi's schools were back in session this week after the spring break with physical distancing measures removed from indoor areas for the first time since the pandemic began. Travel too is getting a little easier, with rules being relaxed in some destinations, confidence returning to the sector generally and demand returning. Further easing of restrictions regarding travel for unvaccinated citizens were announced on Wednesday evening.

Earlier this month, I travelled overseas for the first time since the pandemic began to visit my brother. Stepping off a flight to Singapore, where he lives, was an emotional moment – we had not seen each other since several months before the pandemic began, save for regular Zoom calls – and also an intriguing one, as the city-state's pandemic journey has been similar in some aspects to that of the UAE, and Abu Dhabi in particular.

Locals and tourists queue for a boat tour on the Singapore River, on March 29. Singapore has eased Covid-19 curbs, lifting most restrictions for fully vaccinated visitors and a requirement to wear masks outdoors. Bloomberg

Singapore has used so-called "circuit breakers" to stem rising infections at points in the pandemic and imposed capacity limits on public venues at times and has closed its borders for periods. Now it is opening up once more – its link with Malaysia fully reopened at the beginning of this month and more international travellers are arriving now, because the previous vaccinated travel lane system, which had high bars for entry, has been updated and eased. Outdoor mask mandates were relaxed at the end of last month and capacity limits at venues have increased. Like Abu Dhabi, much of its response to the pandemic has been digital, with its "Trace Together" app being used for people to electronically sign into venues across the city.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong this week addressed a ceremony for civil servants, the first time the annual event has been held in person in the country since before the pandemic began, and used the opportunity to look at his country's response to Covid-19. He said the Singapore government had been required to make difficult choices during the pandemic and that "we did not get every call right" in dealing with what he described as a generational crisis.

He said the country was "getting closer to the finish line" in the battle against Covid-19, but that "we cannot be sure that we are almost arriving. The virus has surprised us many times and will surely do so again".

He added that the country could be "quietly confident" of dealing with what was to come – the philosophy and policy approach in this part of West Asia is remarkably similar.

Mr Lee also said that "we must continue to build up the reservoir of trust in our society. Find new opportunities, create new jobs, improve lives and strengthen our social compact".

Those countries that will fare best in the post-pandemic era are likely to adopt a similar value set.

Published: April 14, 2022, 2:00 PM