Today marks one month to go before the UAE welcomes the world at Expo 2020. Throughout its history, the 170-year-old event has has given its audiences the first glimpse of epoch-defining inventions, such as some of the earliest computers, the first telephone and the first live television broadcast.
This year, 191 countries will be in attendance. In normal times, pulling off such an event is a success. In a pandemic, it is a remarkable one.
Every five years, World Expo, centred on a physical space in which people move between national and thematic pavilions, creates an environment where business people, diplomats, inventors and ordinary citizens hold the face-to-face interactions that drive the world economy. After months of lockdowns and strict health measures, these global meetings have become a novelty.
It is hard to gauge yet the extent to which moving online during the pandemic has hampered economic productivity, but an enthusiasm for physical gatherings across the world – from trade fairs to theatres – indicates that many are excited to get back to normal. Alongside the recent Tokyo Olympics, an international event such as Expo 2020 is one of this year's most symbolic victories over a virus that has put a globalised world on hold.
It was delayed by a year, but neither defeated nor minimised by the virus. On the contrary, it is slated to have an even more compelling programme. This required intense planning and adaptability on the part of the UAE. This week alone demonstrates how its host is balancing a desire to open up to the world and boost attendance at the event, against the need to do so safely. The UAE is now allowing fully vaccinated tourists from 14 previously restricted countries to apply for visas. On Monday, the government capped the price of PCR tests at Dh50. In September, for children going back to school, they will be free.
These measures, among many others, have led to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, assuring people that “the worst has passed” in the UAE when it comes to Covid-19. The success of ongoing policies and a leading vaccination programme – more than three quarters of the population are fully vaccinated – has led to the most explicit official statement yet that we can contemplate victory over the virus.
It is, therefore, possible to begin making the case that we are approaching the beginning of the end of Covid-19 in the UAE. We should be under no illusion that even if this is the case, managing the end is still going to be complex, and the road to total recovery is long. But there will be major changes for the better en route to a return to normal, even with a cautious approach.
Expo 2020 next month is a perfect example. And while only some countries today are lucky enough to have the capacity to host the world, with each global hub that opens up, we can be more hopeful that a return to a globalised economy and way of life is on the horizon.