Mike Lledos’ wife is the head of an international school in Dubai, and over the last 18 months he has become a regular commuter to Dubai. His South African friends thought he was being a little melodramatic when he said prepare for a ‘lockdown’ – it’s coming to your neighbourhood too. He shares his experiences.
For those not familiar with Dubai, to understand the dynamics of the impact of COVID-19 here and the consequences of the lockdown it may be useful to have a better insight into this socio-economic ‘anomaly’ without me sounding like an overzealous tour guide.
From a relatively unknown and insignificant fishing village in a harsh desert with an unforgiving climate, and no real natural resources other than some oil initially and pearls, Dubai has transformed itself into an economic and social miracle. A world-class leader in so many facets. And in the space of just 50-odd years!
What has made the COVID-19 experience so different is that Dubai is multi-cultural with a largely expatriate population. It is also a global trade hub; an international travel hub, with Emirates airlines; the number 4 global tourist destination; a global centre of innovation and leadership; a top medical destination; the leading shopping destination; a leading sporting and music events destination; and a centre for international conferences.
So, as the COVID-19 story started to unfold in February this year, Dubai was at the forefront as the global impact was becoming so relevant, clear and daunting. How do you keep out 20 million tourists; say no to 89 million passengers on the biggest airline in the world; close the entrances to the biggest shopping mall in the world; postpone EXPO 2020, the ‘World’s Greatest Show’; close the corporate head offices of many of the world’s giants; and say to an expatriate population with ties to every corner of the globe that they cannot get back home except one way?
When Dubai first started responding to COVID-19, life and business in South Africa and Europe (apart from Italy) was continuing as usual. Trump was betting on reducing the 15 infections to zero in the next week (the US is now almost 1,5 million infections later). I think most people thought this was a Chinese and Middle Eastern problem. I could still commute, although some passengers were starting to wear masks and I had a temperature check at ORT. Returning to Dubai in mid-February was still normal, but everything changed in two weeks. Closures, restrictions, and then the curfews. My fellow South Africans thought I was being a little melodramatic when I said prepare for a lockdown – it’s coming to your neighbourhood too.
Working and keeping in touch with colleagues, friends and family on a global basis was little different. Living online was not the real challenge. Some communication platforms like Skype are not available in Dubai, but then one needs to gear everyone else up on the other alternatives. However, as family elsewhere in the world became infected with restrictions, life became very complicated.
Doing business meetings online was initially regarded as a little ‘frustrating’ by colleagues, but now it’s the new norm.
The logistics became tiresome and frustrating with flight changes from one day to the next, culminating in cancellations, refunds, vouchers and costs at every turn. Medical aid is covered by travel insurance but only for 90 days – I was able to extend, but only for 30 days at a time. Bank cards expired, but I was able to get them delivered here.
Running a home remotely in South Africa for such an extended period relied on good neighbours. Cancelling meetings and appointments in Joburg as I couldn’t travel was, I’m sure, seen by many people as an excuse, as nothing had changed back home. Renewing a cell phone contract from Dubai was not as simple as I expected. And so many things we generally find easier when we are on the ground just became more tedious but no less important. And then visitor visas to Dubai were only valid for 90 days, with significant penalties for overstays. A blanket extension was given by the authorities. Small things became big things, like simply not getting health cover in a pandemic.
Probably the biggest challenge, as for everyone, has been the restriction on freedom. The closure of gyms, pools, beaches and walks (even if this is the city and not the countryside of South Africa) has been daunting. The closure of airports and ability to travel was even more stressful. Even if one could get a flight, there was uncertainty of getting back to Dubai. This became certain as borders and airports are definitely closed in Dubai and half the world.
The rare flights are one-way repatriation trips followed by state quarantine.
But living and watching the evolution of the responses in the UAE to COVID – the pace and extent of interventions; unimaginable decisions and consequences like grounding Emirates airlines; and the unpredictable becoming reality with investment markets, oil, gold, property reaching new records in volatility, highs and lows − was, I can only imagine, like living on the frontiers of the Wild West. The world was caught up in disbelief −the debates as to whether it was a pandemic and whether ‘herd immunity’ works would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so severe. The steps subsequently taken in South Africa give me a sense of déjà vu, but obviously the socio-economic issues are very different.
So, in Dubai, it was/is safe, tough, organised, disruptive, frustrating, restrictive but very clear and with a plan. Health, financial, communication and technology resources were mobilised with extraordinary innovations. Community spirit, leadership and discipline are impressive.