Dubai cemented its reputation as a party city over the festive period, drawing revellers from around the world. Barely a month later the Gulf emirate is paying a high price as coronavirus cases surge and doctors complain of a shortage of beds.
Covid-19 cases have quadrupled since November to almost 4,000 a day. The past fortnight of record-breaking infections has forced Dubai to introduce some new restrictions, such as increasing testing on arrivals and banning live entertainment, even as the United Arab Emirates’ vaccination drive speeds ahead.
“It’s bad luck to be the jet-set’s party town during a global pandemic,” said Jim Krane, research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute and author of Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City.
Doctors across UAE echo the sentiment. “The New Year shenanigans in Dubai were an obvious superspreader event. After that, cases have gone up quickly and we have the new variant too,” said one expatriate doctor who did not want his name to be published.
The festive influx delivered an economic boost to the indebted emirate. Hotel occupancy rose to an average 71 per cent in December, the busiest month for hospitality since the pandemic began. The open-door strategy has been underpinned by a successful vaccination drive. The UAE, using the Chinese Sinopharm and BioNTech/Pfizer jabs, has delivered more than 2.7m doses, covering more than a quarter of the population. The target is to immunise half the 10m residents during the first quarter.
While more onerous quarantine requirements have slowed the rate of arrivals, Dubai continues to welcome tourists who present negative PCR tests before boarding — and the bars, beaches and shopping malls remain busy.
But the price of the economic revival is being felt in hospitals, tarnishing Dubai’s pitch as a coronavirus-secure bolt-hole. Active coronavirus cases of about 25,000 this week compare with fewer than 2,000 in early November, when the tourism season kicked in. More than 800 people have died of the virus in the emirate since the pandemic began.
In Dubai, where tourists vastly outnumber residents, the challenges of the pandemic, such as new strains, are particularly worrisome, said Hasnain Malik, an analyst with Tellimer, an emerging markets research house.
“Policymakers have adopted the most practical course of action” to manage the outbreak, he said, but “it all adds up to a stuttering, stop-start recovery.”
The expatriate doctor said the combination of case volume and severity had “smacked government facilities hard,” adding that state was asking private sector hospitals to relieve the burden by taking sick patients.
A duty manager at a midsized private hospital in an upmarket district of Dubai said there were almost no beds available. Another facility nearby had around half of its 40 beds taken with Covid patients, with the remainder being kept free for any serious cases in the coming weeks, according to an executive working for the hospital’s owner.
Another Dubai doctor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Everyone is trying to make extra space as most places are almost full. There’s a big shortage as lots of [infected people] are coming through”.
She has been moved to the emergency ward, one of a number of medical staff who have shifted into frontline roles to fill in for sick colleagues.
The UAE health ministry, which operates facilities across the seven emirates, is “urgently” advertising for nurses to work in Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah at monthly salaries of $2,450 — about a third more than the average wage for these roles.
One person briefed on the Dubai Health Authority’s plans said it was preparing to open an isolation facility on the city’s outskirts. Reopening a shuttered field hospital at the exhibition centre was another option. Sharjah, a neighbouring emirate, this week said a new Covid hospital would be ready in a month.
The DHA, the director of which was recently replaced, has banned all non-elective surgery as the shortage of beds and staff bites. “There’s no sense of panic yet — the government can still issue more restrictions,” the person briefed on the authority’s plans said.
A Dubai official said the strong partnership between public and private sectors had enabled the healthcare system to manage Covid cases while also providing regular medical care to the general population.
“Hospitals have been reorganised to further enhance reserve capacity for Covid-19 patients,” the official added. “Patients requiring emergency and urgent care continue to receive prompt treatment.”
Rice University’s Mr Krane added: “The authorities have the tools to fix this when they’re ready. We’ve seen Dubai take decisive action before and it’s been a success.”
Still, some people have struggled to access medical care. A 39 year-old woman with underlying conditions died at home last week four days after testing positive, according to two friends.
Despite repeated requests for help when she had difficulty breathing, she was not taken to hospital. “There was too much delay and we should have pushed more from our side. Then, perhaps, there would have been a chance,” said one.