After months of Covid-19 cases tracking downwards, new infections have risen again this week in the UAE.
Officials reported more than 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, the highest total for months.
The last time the daily infection rate was around this number was in February, during the peak weeks of the Omicron variant wave of infections. Since that time, daily cases fell for the two months through to mid-April and have generally trended low and flat since then.
The National’s case tracker graphics, based on official figures, recorded the seven-day average for new cases as approximately 330 new infections per day in mid-March and mid-May. Sandwiched in between, average cases declined to around 230 cases a day in mid-April.
As of yesterday, the seven-day average stood a shade over 600 cases per day and is moving upwards. The total number of cases identified in the country since records began is a little over 900,000, from which the vast majority (approximately 98 per cent) have recovered.
More than two years into the pandemic, those statistics are likely to stir a range of emotions among anyone who reads them, stretching from ambivalence in some cases to deep concern from other people. Some will be asking is this the storm after a prolonged period of calm? Others will view this point in time as part of the cyclical nature of the course of this highly transmissible and mutating virus.
Neither of those reactions is especially surprising or necessarily wrong.
The pandemic has involved a far longer journey than many of us would have dared to speculate when the first coronavirus cases were identified in the UAE in January 2020. The route towards the post-pandemic or endemic world has also involved many twists and turns – particularly the peaks and troughs of the different strains that have emerged during this years-long period of our lives. Much of one’s reaction to the numbers will be instinctive and may depend on how close the virus feels to your community and your family and friends right now.
Monkeypox has also emerged as another potentially complicated health crisis. The UAE confirmed five new cases earlier in the week, bringing the total number of infections to 13. To date, 780 cases have been identified worldwide in 27 countries where the disease is not routinely found. The World Health Organisation said this week that the global outbreak could be stopped but that it was “critically important” to provide support health services and to halt onward transmission from those cases that have already been identified.
Why is this happening and should we be worried?
That question, perhaps, is easier to answer in relation to monkeypox. Increasing public awareness, recognising symptoms and how it is transmitted will all help in the short-term and while all worry cannot be eliminated, case loads are low and health services are prepared. So there is no need to be alarmist, even if we should heed the clear warnings.
For the increase in Covid-19 cases, the answer may be more complex.
In terms of making sense of this particular moment, all the success factors that have helped the UAE move effectively through the pandemic are still in place, such as high vaccination rates, good public awareness and cooperation, appropriate safety measures, widespread testing and a tried-and-tested health service that is ready and able to cope.
That means, just as we fretted about Omicron at the end of last year as cases rose swiftly, so we may see a similar spike in concern now, only for cases to decline again just as rapidly. For all that each variant is highly contagious, knowledge and expertise have also improved in turn, meaning outcomes are better. There are more solutions than problems now. These are the key distinguishing factors between today and two years ago, when we knew less and there were fewer proven treatments available.
So this will more than likely prove to be another phase of what is termed by some as “living with Covid-19”, where infection rates rise over a period of weeks and then eventually ebb back to where they were. We should remain focused on the longer term rhythms of infection rates – of those ebbs and flows – and on the prevailing recovery rate rather than the headline number of daily infections.
For many residents and citizens, access to affordable, subsidised or free PCR testing has been both a source of comfort and safety during the pandemic.
Certainly taking a trip to a testing centre or tent has been a feature of many of our daily lives and you could informally chart the course of the pandemic by the moments when long queues have snaked outside these facilities, as residents waited patiently to be tested, and by those other occasions when these facilities have been quiet. In either scenario, results are returned via Al Hosn digital platform within a few hours.
As we move further into the third year of the pandemic armed with everything we know about the virus, is there merit in suggesting we transition towards a self-testing regime?
I would argue there is. For those tests that are required to meet company regulations, say, or when a worker may be worried about going into work because they feel under the weather, a simple anti-gen self-test would be a quick, effective and easy way of either confirming or ruling out their suspicions within the home environment.
A next step may be to move to self-certified tests in some scenarios while maintaining the broader framework of response mechanisms that have proved so effective in tackling the virus in the UAE.