Pandemics, by definition, are quick to entrench themselves in societies. Extracting ourselves from their grip, as the world has learnt in the past two-and-a-half years, is a slower process.
On Monday, the UAE lifted nearly all of its Covid-19-related public health measures for the first time since March, 2020. Only the requirement to wear masks in medical facilities and five-day mandatory self-isolation for those who test positive remain.
The move, announced by the country’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (Ncema), marks and end to the “green pass” system employed using the Al Hosn mobile phone app in Abu Dhabi and other parts of the country, which required residents to receive regular negative PCR tests to enter most public spaces, though organisers of sports events can still require PCR tests from attendees.
“All the measures that have been announced…are subject to update and change according to the latest developments and the epidemiological situation in the country,” said Ncema’s Dr Saif Al Dhaheri.
Dr Al Dhaheri’s remarks reflect the cautious optimism with which UAE authorities have approached the Covid-19 pandemic ever since the first case arrived on the country’s shores. There are many measures for success in a country’s pandemic response, but perhaps the most important is its public institutions’ ability to adapt to evolving circumstances.
The initial challenge for many countries was to adapt in a way that caused minimal disruption. In the early months of the pandemic, strict lockdowns were seen as the most straightforward way of keeping the spread of Covid-19 under control, particularly given the general lack of experience most governments had in tackling a viral outbreak of such magnitude in a modern, interconnected world. In most places, including the UAE, lockdowns came swiftly.
But the next challenge was to carve a diligent, compassionate path from this total-containment strategy to one in which society can learn to manage and live with the virus. This was, for many countries, a vexing policy question, in part because of what has turned out in retrospect to be a false perception that governments had to choose between protecting people from the virus and protecting the economy.
The strength of the UAE’s approach was that pursued both of these goals simultaneously. It did so by unwinding restrictions largely in a piecemeal manner. Instead of swinging between maximal and minimal measures, it invested early in the medical infrastructure, R&D and vaccine-rollout preparations required to ensure that severe restrictions were only eased when society was ready and that the chances of returning to them were minimised. It maintained stiff penalties for public health violations and enhanced public co-operation by covering the costs of medical treatment, vaccination and isolation. All of this preserved a sense of predictability in the market and consolidated public trust in the authorities – two vital factors in assessing any country’s pandemic response.
There are still lessons to be learnt in the UAE and elsewhere about what aspects of the past two-and-a-half years worked best, and how to ensure that the damage from the next pandemic – experts all agree that there will, someday, be a next one – is mitigated even better. And this will rely as much on a change in public habits and attitudes as it does on smart policymaking.
It will also rely on countries learning from each other, and there is much to learn from the UAE’s experience. As the American political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote in an article for TIME magazine last year, “When all is said and done, we may well look back at the UAE as a textbook example of how to handle a global pandemic.”