Lessons from the UAE's response to the pandemic

The learning and investment that followed past trials have served the UAE well
The UAE is sending medical aid to Mali to reinforce its efforts to combat the spread of "Covid-19". WAM

A number of measures have appeared in recent months seeking to define good leadership in the era of Covid-19. The Global Response to Infectious Diseases (GRID) index is perhaps the best known of these. Built on the latest epidemiological findings, this ranking is almost by definition as incomplete as our understanding of the Covid-19 virus itself.

Some have suggested that leaders in times of pandemics are those who display ‘non-traditional’ and adaptive qualities like emotional intelligence, empathy, and inclusivity – over characteristics more traditionally labelled “leadership” material. But it may be a mistake to focus too much on individual characteristics outside the social, environmental and economic context in which leaders are called upon to act.

For context does matter to the response, even if we don’t always know exactly how or why. And it includes such things as whether or not that country is an island, how small or dense the population is; how unified the country is politically, and how well the local population listens to authority.

Put simply, some countries and some leaders have a greater challenge than others.

Leadership involves not just the ability to follow conventional wisdom, but success in managing completely new scenarios and combinations of factors – in other words, "resilience", a somewhat vague term that nevertheless packs a punch, for it seems to suggest the ability to preserve in the face of hardship, while maintaining a positive outlook.

Here, the case of the UAE is interesting. The UAE, which ranks ninth in the Grid index, exhibits many of the features of the other top responders and has employed the same best practices as these nations: it cancelled mass gatherings early; imposed strict lockdowns and social distancing measures; it made science and testing the cornerstone of its response, and as of June 7, has tested approximately 28 per cent of its population, a higher percentage than any other country in the world. It also explained its vision and approach to dealing with the pandemic internally, in ways that have provided comfort and encouraged optimism.

Finding solutions to complications

But there are aspects to the UAE’s situation that complicate its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Like a few other global hubs, the UAE is built on globalisation, on being a place where people from all corners of the earth come to meet and trade; indeed, some 120 million people transited the UAE in 2019.

In good times, this is a boon for the logistics services, tourism and travel industry. But it also puts the UAE on the front lines of the battle against any global contagion, whether economic or biological.

The UAE was hit hard by the global recession in 2008, and exposed to previous Sars and Mers epidemics.

Further, out of a population of 9 million, more than 7 million UAE residents are overseas citizens – which carries with it a variety of government obligations – and not forgetting the fact that the UAE is at the centre of a politically ‘hot’ region, where any additional strain could precipitate conflict.

The UAE's response to the pandemic shows how to deal with adversity with pragmatism and minimum drama, while contributing to the greater international good

So, while other top 10 Grid countries have some leeway to focus on their own problems, the leadership of the UAE monitors and modulates its impact on stakeholders and regional dynamics – and conversely, their impact on the UAE – imposing multiple strategic considerations at once.

But the proactive learning and investment that followed past trials has served the UAE well. It invested in better medical infrastructure, supply chain agility, food security, high-tech medical and bio-research, all of which is now helping industry to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. This is happening on a number of levels: from 3-D printing of personal protective equipment, to the development of contact tracing applications, to contributions to the search for an effective Covid-19 treatment, to the rapid sourcing and stockpiling of essential supplies – all the while keeping mortality rates one of the lowest in the world.

Following best practices

Following Covid-19 best practices, balancing economic and geo-political concerns and applying lessons learned in the past all contribute to the UAE’s Covid-19 response and this has earned it the ninth spot of the 113 countries in the Grid index.

But leadership doesn’t stop there. Just as the ability to do well with little is hard to measure, so is the ability to ‘go beyond’, and in particular, to go beyond the needs of its own population, while juggling numerous variables at home.

And that may be where the UAE's contribution is most profound.

Since early March, it has sent more than 716 tonnes of critical medical supplies to at least 63 countries, big and small, ally or rival alike. No other nation has done this, at this scale.

Adapting to shifting situations

Over the last four months of the pandemic, the country helped reunite more than 80,000 with their families, both inside and outside the UAE. For those people, as well as the beneficiaries of UAE aid, these extra efforts mean the world.

As everyone is learning, there is no short-term fix for Covid-19; what works today in fighting the virus may prove to be maladaptive in the next wave – if it comes.

Many of the factors and approaches that have generated praise for leadership now may seem more ambiguously helpful four months hence. And it may not be possible to distill effective Covid-19 leadership into a single idea.

But for those who live in the UAE, and have watched its response, the term “resilience” resonates. It is a study of the ability to deal with an unusual degree of adversity with pragmatism and minimum drama, while contributing to the greater international good.

As we move out of lockdown and address the impact that the pandemic has had on businesses it is this resilient leadership that will be paramount.

Robert Kirk is Chief Commercial Officer at Dulsco and a former chief of staff in the British Special Forces