100 days of Covid-19 in UAE: from the first infections to malls reopening

Fighting coronavirus has changed all our lives

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It feels like a lifetime ago, but it has been just over 100 days since a family on holiday from China became the first Covid-19 cases reported in the UAE.

The group from the city of Wuhan – the centre of what was then not a full-blown pandemic – took their grandmother to a clinic with flu-like symptoms on January 23.

All four family members, including the parents and a girl, 9, were tested and found to have Covid-19. They had arrived in Dubai on an Emirates flight a week earlier.

At the time, the coronavirus was ravaging parts of China, with more people 80 dead and nearly 3,000 confirmed cases. Only a day before the news broke, Minister of Health Abdul Rahman Al Owais had declared the UAE to be free of the disease.

Liu Yujia, 73, the first woman to have coronavirus in the UAE recovers from the disease. Wam
Liu Yujia, 73, the first woman to have coronavirus in the UAE recovers from the disease. Wam

However, the authorities knew it was only a matter of time before the contagion arrived and had acted accordingly.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention had put airports and entry points to the country on standby to monitor for possible cases at least a week earlier. By January 25, Etihad was screening passengers and crew arriving from China, with dedicated gates at Abu Dhabi airport and thermal cameras to detect symptoms.

At the same time, hospitals and health clinics were drawing up plans and running emergency drills for when – as seemed increasingly certain – not if, Covid-19 came to the UAE.

That fateful last week in January also gave the world and the UAE the first taste of what might be in store for their economies, as oil prices began what would turn out to be a long slide downward as demand began to fall.

Within days of the first UAE cases, concerns began to spread, with a huge surge in demand for face masks such that one online retailer was offering them for Dh699 each.

On February 1, another case was declared, another traveller from China, while a fall in demand led Emirates to switch to smaller planes on some of its routes to the country.

By February 22, an Iranian couple brought the number of UAE cases to 13, as the ending of the Venice Carnival gave a taste of what was soon to come, with Dubai private schools told to cancel all trips a week later and nurseries closed.

By the end of the month, the final stage of the UAE Tour had to be cancelled as two hotels on Yas Island were placed on lockdown after two Italian cyclists tested positive for coronavirus.

It was March when the storm truly broke, beginning with widespread cancellations and postponements and the closure of all schools for at least a month on March 3. The next day, orders were given for all football in the UAE to be played in empty stadiums, with the UAE’s World Cup qualifiers postponed on March 9.

That week, Art Dubai and Taste of Dubai were postponed, Global Village was closed and local cruise operations were suspended. By March 10, the number of UAE cases had risen to 74. A day later, shisha smoking was banned in “tourist establishments”.

On March 14, the UAE Central Bank rolled out a Dh100 billion stimulus package, ahead of much of the world, as oil prices continued their steep plunge. Across the country, gyms, theme parks and cinemas were closed.

The world was now pulling down the shutters. In mid-March, visas-on-arrival were cancelled for more than 70 countries, followed by the temporary suspension of entry for GCC citizens on March 21.

A day earlier came the sad news of the first two coronavirus-related deaths in the country, included a 78-year-old Arab national who had recently arrived from Europe.

March 23 will long be remembered. Malls and markets were ordered to close within 48 hours, except for those selling food and medicines. All flights were suspended and everyone told to stay at home unless “absolutely necessary”. The number of Covid-19 cases in the UAE topped 300, and banks were told only to use new notes in ATMs. A night curfew was introduced for deep cleaning of streets at the weekend of March 26.

The first rescue flights to bring home hundreds of Emiratis stranded overseas began in early April, while Emirates and Etihad announced the start of limited one-way repatriation flights for residents who wished to return home. Dubai closed its Metro for the first time since September 9, 2009.

By April 5, there had been 1,799 cases of Covid-19 in the UAE and 10 deaths. Across the country families settled to a new routine of working and studying from home, while Christians celebrated Easter on April 12 with remote services streamed from empty churches. From April 13, passengers leaving the country had a sticker placed on their passport reading “We’ll meet soon.”

A man, wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, has his temperature taken at the Ibn Battuta mall in the Emirate of Dubai on April 27, 2020. The United Arab Emirates decided on April 23 to reopen malls, cafes and restaurants and ease lockdown restrictions imposed last month to prevent the spread of coronavirus on the occasion of Ramadan. / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE
A man has his temperature taken at Ibn Battuta mall in Dubai on April 27, 2020. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

By the middle of the month, the UAE had conducted nearly 650,000 Covid-19 tests, the third highest in the world per capita, diagnosing more than 4,000 cases but with 680 recoveries. These were carried out at hospitals, specialist centres and at least 14 drive-through testing facilities across the country.

A new hospital dedicated to Covid-19 patients opened at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City on April 23. It had been built in just 48 hours. Field hospitals were also built across the country to increase capacity.

By the end of April, there were the first signs of a return to a more normal life. Contactless card readers were introduced in Abu Dhabi taxis and several Dubai Metro stations opened on April 29. Hotels began to reopen, with facilities restricted to guests, while shopping malls were able to welcome back customers.

Just 100 days after the first known case, the UAE has recorded more than 16,000 infections, and sadly, as of May 7, 165 deaths.