The diversity of the UAE has been the country’s greatest advantage in the fight against Covid-19, AbdulRahman Al Owais, the UAE’s Minister of Health and Prevention, told an international online summit this week.
All the different nationalities that make up the nation, said Al Owais, have come together to help manage the crisis.
When asked how UAE has succeeded largely in containing the spread of the virus, the minister replied: “Two hundred different nationalities — that’s the secret.
“Imagine 200 different experiences and different knowledge,” he says. “We have been investing in this since the founding of the nation and now all came together as one task force. Culturally, it is amazing how we are all standing side by side as brothers.”
The cultural, racial and religious diversity of the UAE has also ensured equal treatment when it came to health care.
“We have a clear law that covers everyone who is on the ground of the UAE, whether citizen or resident,” he said. “All are covered.”
Al Owais was addressing the ongoing World Government Summit Virtual Health Forum, hosted by Dubai but held online this year. The keynote address, given by the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was followed by a discussion including Lena Hallengren, Sweden’s minister of health and social affairs, and Bent Hoie, Norway’s minister of health.
Asked if the UAE had had a contingency plan in place for coping with a pandemic such as the one caused by the coronavirus, Al Owais replied, “I don’t believe anyone was ready for what we’ve been through.” But the key to reacting speedily was flexibility, he added.
“We are blessed with a leadership that makes quick decisions. The first emergency meeting was held at the beginning of January, even before the pandemic was announced. More than three million tests have been done — that’s around a third of the total population. It’s maximum testing for maximum security. We could not have realized this without the proper flexibility.”
The country has also increased local production of essential equipment and ensured sufficient imports.
“Again, it goes back to flexibility,” said Al Owais. “We created a safe chain of supply from the beginning.”
In his opening address, Dr Ghebreyesus warned that the pandemic would not be overcome without global solidarity.
“We cannot defeat the virus in a divided world,” he said.
The UAE has been a prime mover in getting vital supplies to countries that are less well-equipped and with fewer resources to cope with the pandemic, said Al Owais.
“I believe our leaders know what it means to stand next to each other,” he said. “The UAE had enough supplies so the excess was relocated around the world. That’s typical of the UAE.”
As for lessons learned during the pandemic, the minister said the world had grossly underestimated the importance of social media, as both a force for good and bad.
“The importance of social media is so strong but we didn’t benefit from it,” he said. “Instead there was so much misinformation and it created a mess. That puts a big responsibility on the government. We have to respond faster to that — the faster the better. It wasn’t there when we had SARS, but now we have to learn how we can benefit from social media.”
As for the future, the minister said people could not endure restrictions indefinitely.
“There are two important sectors: health and the economy,” he said. “People can go through difficulty but you can’t keep pushing them through more difficulty.
“The advantage we have today is that we know more than before. It’s an ongoing challenge but we have to be optimistic, we have to be positive — and we have to be careful.”
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.