After Abdulrafeeque Thanintekeezhil tested positive for Covid-19, he said his first thought was “how do I pay for hospital bills with a Dh800 monthly salary?”
The Indian delivery driver was soon made aware that low-income workers like him who live in labour accommodation are being given UAE government-sponsored care.
These include drivers, security guards and labourers who share rooms with multiple roommates, in some cases 10 men in one room, making self-isolation impossible.
Mr Abdul, 36, who lives in labour accommodation in Mussaffah with nine roommates, was taken to Mafraq Hospital on April 28 after he complained of a fever, headache, body pain and cough.
"I was really worried at first when the symptoms started because I was having very bad body pain and had a high blood pressure," he told The National. "But we were taken to a nice hospital where we got good food, medicine and medical staff that looked after us."
Mr Thanintekeezhil refrained from telling his family back home, in the Indian state of Kerala, about his illness as he did not want to worry them.
It was only when he defeated the virus on May 5 that he made a call to his wife and two children, aged 4 to 6.
“I don’t think we would’ve got this high level support back home, so we are lucky. If it wasn’t free, it would’ve been impossible for any of us to pay. How can we pay for hospital treatments with our kind of salaries?” he said.
As of May 7, the UAE had 16,249 coronavirus cases, 213 deaths and 3,572 recoveries.
Covid-19 screenings have been made available for blue-collar workers free of charge.
The UAE’s largest screening site, with a capacity to test 10,000 a day, recently opened in Abu Dhabi’s Mussaffah – an industrial district that is packed with labour accommodation.
Once a worker is tested positive, him and his roommates are separated and put into isolation in a government-approved facility.
For symptomatic patients who require hospital care, they are admitted into hospital isolation wards where they receive care.
Matthew, whose name was changed on request, is a 31-year-old Ugandan hospital porter. He has been working on the front lines as he moves around Covid-19 patients.
He shares living space with nine others at a worker's camp in Mussaffah and, after testing positive for the virus, was initially moved to isolation by his company.
He said his employer went on to place four others in the same isolation room as him. He said he was not given any soap or towels and was given just hot water for breakfast.
It was not until the government stepped in and moved the patients to Al Mafraq Hospital for proper care that Matthew felt at ease.
“The company isolation was very disturbing,” he said. “I was concerned because I didn’t see the company people worrying about us. When I was in isolation, I was worried I would get sick there and did not have good care.
“But when I got to Mafraq, the doctor told me it would be fine, I had to be calm, keep safe and that they could give us food. The good thing is the doctors assured me I would recover. That’s how I managed.”
He was then transferred to isolation at UAE University in Al Ain. He had his second negative test on April 30 and wants to return to work, but can only do so after spending 14 days in mandatory isolation.
Ismail Bwayo, 27, is another Ugandan living in labour accommodation in Mussafah. He tested positive on April 9 and was moved to Mafraq Hospital.
“I had a cough, headache and a flu. It was worrying mostly because I know there is no cure, but it was a privilege that we were able to receive such good care as I know it won’t be the same case in other many other countries,” said Mr Bwayo, who works as a security guard at Emirates Palace.
He lives with eight other people and believes he contracted the virus from one of them.
Like the others, Mr Bwayo did not tell his parents he had caught the virus.
“It could have caused them to panic,” he said. “I know that the government here would help us, so I only told them after I got better.”
While cost-free care is given to the needy in the UAE, it is not the same case in other parts of the world.
People in the United States, which has the highest number of cases globally, have limited access to screenings, according to a New York Times report on April 15.
Those who are uninsured and have tested positive face hefty medical bills.
In the UAE, testing is free of cost for people with existing medical conditions, the elderly, pregnant women and those displaying symptoms of the virus. For the rest, the cost is Dh370.
If the person tests positive, the UAE has instructed hospitals that insurance firms will “honour claims received”.
The government will bear the costs for patients who are uninsured.