One year after the end of Covid restrictions, has life really changed?

The pandemic shook up our world, but it has settled back into its old, uncertain ways

Signs up in shops telling people to keep their distance due to Covid-19 in Al Karama, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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This week marks a year since the UAE announced the easing of several Covid-19 safety measures – including the ending of the mandate governing the use of face masks indoors, except in a few limited circumstances, a policy that was fully relaxed a few weeks later.

The September 2022 briefing by the National Crisis Emergency and Disaster Management Authority also reduced the home quarantine period, extended the validity of green status on the Al Hosn app and NCEMA said it would no longer report daily caseloads, as it had done for the previous two and half years. The announcement signalled once and for all that the country had reached the final stretch of the pandemic.

The physical architecture of the pandemic years also began to be dismantled soon afterwards – such as discrete entrances and exits to malls and public places – although there are forget-me-nots and reminders all over the country to this day: look over there and you might see a sticker on the ground offering guidance on social distancing or look over here and there might be a “stay safe” notice stuck to a wall.

If you drive along Muroor Road, past the main Mubadala Building and towards the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, there is now an empty plot where there used to be one of the city’s major testing tents. All that remains today is the single visual tell of a now superfluous welcome arch on the edge of the lot.

The same too, on Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Street, where a major on-island testing site sat before its relocation to Muroor. The old site, once a busy, 24-hour location which many residents will remember patiently queueing around its vast tent structure, is now also just an empty plot.

There are forget-me-nots and reminders of the pandemic all over the country to this day

It would be easy to paint a picture that suggests these now abandoned plots or even the small reminders on walls and floors are emblematic of the post-covid landscape, but that would provide an incomplete image. The question remains, however, as to what really remains from the pandemic years?

I suspect that the pandemic left something behind on all of us, whether that is how we view our general health and wellbeing, how we live our lives or how we organise our working days. Few of us can genuinely say the plot is truly empty.

While the framework of pandemic control measures has been dismantled, the habits of 2020 and later remain – which is why for those of working age, many offices still run operate in hybrid mode.

The debate over the merits of this remains current, with even Zoom now asking its employees to be in the office more often. Recent studies suggest global attendance at offices is still around 30 per cent below where it was before the pandemic.

Both sides – those who advocate for maximum flexibility over working arrangements and those who want more people in the office – will point to studies that show higher or lower productivity, depending on the point they are trying to prove.

Very few people enjoy commuting, which is one reason why work from home remains popular and effective, but also it is clear that workplace culture is harder to meaningfully foster if employees are scattered across the world and only meet infrequently in-person.

The nation’s schools are one month into their first truly “normal” school year since 2018-19. Pandemic control measures were first put in place in March 2020 and were adapted over the following two and a half years, with the push and pull of periods of distance learning punctuating the road to last year’s key NCEMA briefing.

Many parents and students may be profoundly thankful that things have returned to normal, but may also wonder and worry about any lagging impact. Again, it is hard to reach a definitive conclusion.

More generally, our lives may also be very different to how we once were. All of us had to be highly adaptable and rules-driven during the toughest phases of the pandemic and now we find ourselves living with fewer rules and less need to be highly adaptable in one sense and more in others, especially as the world grows ever more complex each day.

Masks remain as an occasional feature of our daily lives, largely through personal choice, especially for those boarding flights, taking public transport or attending conferences.

Perhaps, those opposing forces of absence and permanence are what we are really left with a year on. The infrastructure may have mostly disappeared, but the habits formed in those years and how we feel about personal responsibility have been hard-wired into us. The pandemic may well have made the merits of practising better self-care and keeping healthier habits much clearer.

Then again, the seeming randomness of the virus makes it hard to be absolute. In our household, three of us had the virus simultaneously early last year and each of us dealt with different symptoms and levels of severity.

In the end, that might be the most appropriate takeaway. The post-pandemic world has turned out to be as uneven and unpredictable as the Covid-19 years were.

Published: September 29, 2023, 4:00 AM