DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Dubai has taken tough new measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 and is defending its strategy to fight pandemics after a surge in cases.
The record-breaking infection rates in recent weeks have forced Dubai to introduce new capacity cuts and a curfew on some businesses after opening up to tourists. The authorities blamed “a significant increase in violations of precautionary measures” for the new rules.
Last week, the UK suspended all flights to the UAE – the world’s busiest international route. Meanwhile, Dubai banned its popular brunches and closed pubs and bars on Wednesday.
“The approach in the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, has always been backed by science, and science has informed common sense,” Dubai Health Authority deputy director Alawi Alsheikh-Ali told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Thursday.
“The numbers have increased, but the health system has managed to keep up with the numbers and care for the sick and in response there have now been more restrictions on activities in the emirate and the UAE,” he added .
But as images of bustling beaches and Instagram celebrities on social media generate anger and envy in the international press, some are questioning the wisdom of Dubai’s strategy.
“What happened in Dubai didn’t have to happen,” Erin Bromage, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who specializes in infections and immunology, told CNBC.
“They introduced the virus, including the new variants, in waves of new tourists and allowed it to spread to the community as well as uninfected tourists,” said Bromage. “The tourists are returning home and sowing infections there, possibly with the new variants.”
Figures from the UK Civil Aviation Authority show that almost 300,000 people traveled between the UK and the United Arab Emirates in November and December last year alone. Thousands are flocking to Dubai’s hotspots to escape lockdowns.
In the critical month of December – when a new and highly transmittable variant of the virus spread across the UK – 211,115 people traveled between the UK and the United Arab Emirates. The data only shows traffic to and from the UK and not to other countries, which means the total number of travelers is likely to be much higher. Passengers had to be tested before boarding or upon arrival.
“We have been following the numbers very closely and are very concerned about the increase in numbers and the emergence of new variants about two months ago,” said Alsheikh-Ali.
Cases have tripled since November, but UAE authorities deny the community is at risk and reject the idea that the city has become a hotspot for spreading the virus overseas.
“We saw variants … that have now been reported in more than 70 different countries,” said Alsheikh-Ali. “I don’t think identifying a particular country as a particular source for a particular variant is helpful,” he added.
Dubai’s business community, which has benefited from the open door policy, is also pushing back.
“Infection rates are much higher in the UK than they are currently in the United Arab Emirates, so it is clearly not the case that the United Arab Emirates are causing problems or being a super-spreader country,” said Chris Payne, Chief Economist of Dubai Peninsula Real Estate. said CNBC.
“The UAE has taken a different route, Dubai in particular, and I don’t blame them for that,” added Payne. “They feel that Dubai’s economy needs to be opened up and it has not been able to withstand the lengthy closures that we have seen elsewhere in the world.”
According to official figures from Johns Hopkins University, 3,310 new coronavirus cases were registered in the UAE on Wednesday, up from 2,730 on Tuesday. The average number of cases in the UAE over seven days is 3,500.
While the debate over Dubai’s virus strategy rages, at least two countries have raised concerns over passenger flows in the past few weeks.
Danish Transport Minister Benny Engelbrecht said at least “one citizen” had “brought back” the South African variant of the virus “from Dubai. Denmark has temporarily banned flights from the UAE due to criticism of test facilities in the Emirates.
Dubai is a masked Israeli tourist in the historic al-Fahidi district of Dubai on January 11, 2021. With much of the world tightening lockdowns due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Dubai remains open to tourism and is considered sunny and escape without quarantine – despite a sharp increase in cases.
KARIM SAHIB | AFP via Getty Images
The UAE has one of the highest per capita testing rates in the world, with a total of more than 26 million tests. According to the authorities, the test centers work according to international standards and are checked regularly.
Also of concern is Israel, where more than 900 travelers returning from Dubai have been infected with coronavirus. This comes from an Associated Press report quoting the Israeli military. It was said that returnees had “created a chain of infection with more than 4,000 people”.
CNBC was unable to independently review the report and has asked the Israeli military for comment.
Despite the allegations, the UAE authorities insist that they take effective measures to protect the safety of those living and visiting the UAE. That includes the frontline health workers dealing with the rising cases.
“It’s not a good idea, but life has to go on,” a medical worker who performed PCR testing in the finance sector told CNBC when asked if Dubai should remain open to travelers. “We just have to be responsible and watch out. I took my vaccine,” said the worker, who preferred to remain anonymous as he was not confident about speaking publicly without the employer’s approval.
People are waiting to be vaccinated against the coronavirus on February 3, 2021 at a vaccination center at the Dubai International Financial Center in the Gulf emirate of Dubai. The UAE has administered more than a quarter of at least three million doses to its population.
Authorities also turned down proposals for a shortage of hospital beds in Dubai.
“The healthcare system here in Dubai has managed to be ahead of the curve with the surge capacity. Any patient who needs a hospital bed can get it in Dubai today,” said Alsheikh-Ali.
The UAE is at the forefront of a global vaccination campaign. More than 2.7 million doses have already been administered with the Chinese shocks Sinopharm and BioNTech-Pfizer, and half of the 10 million residents are expected to be immunized in the first quarter.
“We currently have three different vaccines available for people in Dubai, with more than 120 vaccine access points, including home vaccines for the elderly who fail to make it to the vaccination centers,” Alsheikh-Ali said when asked how authorities the vaccinations schedule final round of restrictions.
“Vaccinations are our exit strategy.”