The announcement by health officials on Saturday that 1,007 new cases of coronavirus had been identified in the UAE brought home once again how complex this current moment is.
After a summer when new cases had been tracking downwards – in early August the number of positive tests was consistently around 200 cases per 24-hour reporting period – this four-figure number represented the country’s highest single day confirmed figure since the pandemic began. The previous peak had occurred in the second half of May, when 994 new cases were reported in a day.
There is, of course, some danger in concentrating too much on the headline figure of new cases when the number of active cases tells another part of the story and especially because the entire healthcare sector has responded so well to the pandemic. Hundreds of recoveries are announced every day and the death rate has remained low.
The worst-case scenario has not transpired and the country’s hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Our frontline workers have been an inspiration and have rightly been recognised for their unceasing and selfless work in battling coronavirus.
The UAE’s response to the pandemic has been underpinned by an unwavering commitment to testing, with more than 8.2 million Covid-19 tests so far being carried out on a population of just under 10m. At the current rates of testing, that 10m mark, a true landmark figure, will be breached next month.
In the days since Saturday, the number of new cases being identified has declined to around the same level that we were seeing at the beginning of this month. Both the higher and lower figures illustrate that this will be a long journey out of this crisis with many peaks and troughs along the way.
The late summer increase in cases has been met with reminders from officials about the regulatory framework in the country.
This week, it was announced employees at UAE federal departments and ministries face up to a 10-day salary cut for breaking pandemic safety guidelines, which include mandatory face masks and physical distancing protocols. A list of general fines that can be levied has also been circulated by the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources as a reminder of the rules.
Authorities in Dubai said they issued more than 3,000 warnings and over 200 fines in four shopping malls last weekend. Some restaurants have been fined. Shops have also been held accountable, while a few individuals are being held to account for breaching mandatory home quarantine orders. Police in the emirate have urged hotels and businesses connected with the tourism industry to refrain from organising crowded events.
An official in Dubai said this week that “everyone needs to adhere to the precautionary measures in order to protect public health and to ensure business continuity”.
This statement recognises that only the very few set out to deliberately break the rules, which explains why the authorities have been uncompromising in the case of a man who is reported to have bragged online about going out for coffee despite being infected with coronavirus. If found guilty, he faces a fine of up to Dh50,000 for breaking quarantine rules and a potentially larger fine and a possible custodial sentence for disobeying cybercrime laws.
Thankfully, these remain relatively isolated cases. Generally, communities have shown great willingness to follow advice on physical distancing, wearing masks and other measures.
So much of our ability to get out of the pandemic will be based on personal responsibility to adhere to the rules rather than relying on more stringent regulation being drawn up and enforced. We all need to continue to support each other in this endeavour.
But the higher positive tests announced earlier this week also mean that most of us are now constantly recalculating when we think this will all be over.
Unfortunately, there will be no hard switch into a so-called ‘new normal’. The great reset that the pandemic has forced the world to undertake was always likely to be a sequence of events rather than a single moment of transition and transformation, and so it is proving to be.
If anything, that spike in cases reminded us that we are entering another and more complicated phase in the pandemic.
Most of us are now acutely aware that getting out of the restriction of movement orders that characterised the spring and early summer is substantially harder than locking down in the first place. This phase of the pandemic seems particularly tricky to navigate as businesses, workplaces and schools seek to reopen and new cases are identified.
Having spent five months with their doors closed, schools across the country began to reopen last month with a variety of learning models, ranging from in-person teaching with reduced class sizes to a short-term continuation of distance learning.
Some schools have transferred back to full distance learning once again this month after breaching the low threshold for possible closure, which stands at two or more cases being detected among pupils and staff. Their story seems to symbolise the circumstances for society at large. We may see periods of stop and start and we will need to constantly adapt.
The risk of burnout also seems to be heightened at this time, as we all take time to absorb the difficult road ahead. To get through this next phase, we will all need to fall back on our reserves of empathy, resilience and patience. It may not be easy.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National