January 29, 2020 was a watershed day in the UAE. It was when the country became the first in the Middle East to announce a confirmed case of Covid-19. The patient was a 73-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan, the province where the virus first surfaced. Here is the timeline of how the UAE tackled the virus that took over the world.
UAE’s early days
January 16, 2020: A family of four – grandmother, parents and a 10-year-old child – arrive in the UAE on holiday from Wuhan, China.
January 23: The grandmother sees a doctor because she has flu-like symptoms. It emerges that the whole family is infected with the virus.
January 29: The UAE announces the first confirmed coronavirus cases. Face masks sell out across the country.
January 31: The fifth Covid-19 case is confirmed – another traveller from Wuhan.
February 9, 2020: The 73-year-old grandmother from Wuhan is discharged from hospital after recovering.
The month ends with 16 new cases of Covid-19 in the UAE: three Chinese, two Filipinos, six Iranians, one each from India, Bahrain and Bangladesh. Two Italians taking part in the UAE cycling tour also test positive, leading to 612 people being quarantined in two hotels on Yas island, Abu Dhabi.
March 5, 2020: The first Emirati, a 17-year-old student, tests positive despite showing no symptoms.
March 20: The UAE announces the first two deaths from Covid-19, followed by two more the next day.
March 23: The government urges people to stay at home unless going to work or in case of emergency as the number of reported cases reaches 198.
March 25: 64 people who had come into contact with people infected with the virus are arrested for breaking home quarantine rules.
March 26: The UAE begins a nightly sterilization program between 8pm and 6am. No one is allowed to go out during those hours except for emergencies. The program, initially meant to last three days, is soon extended indefinitely, although during Ramadan, curfew begins two hours later, at 10pm.
March 31: At the end of the month, the total number of cases stands at 664 with six deaths.
The numbers continue to climb with alarming speed. At the end of April, there are 12,481 cases. Six months later, there are 132,629.
UAE locks down
The UAE government lost no time in taking action to curb the spread of the virus.
March 8: Schools and universities close, initially for two weeks.
March 16: Prayers at mosques and all other places of worship are suspended. Instead, prayers led by an imam are broadcast once daily for people to participate at home. Worship also continues remotely for other faiths, including weddings via Zoom.
March 23: All except essential shops, such as food stores and pharmacies, close.
March 25: Passenger flights to and from the UAE cease.
March 29: Dubai suspends all Metro and tram operations and Sharjah suspends its inner-city bus service.
March 30: It is announced that distance learning at schools and universities is to continue for the rest of the academic year.
• Restrictions on movement come into force at the end of March. Al Ras, home to Dubai’s gold souk and one of the city’s most densely populated areas, is sealed off for two weeks, with no one allowed in or out.
April 4: Dubai imposes a total, round-the-clock lockdown, reduced 20 days later to a night-time curfew from 10pm to 6am.
April 6: Two charters planes repatriate 80 Emiratis from the UK.
March 21: To offset the slowdown in the economy, the UAE Central Bank announces a Dh100 million stimulus package, which is increased to Dh126 billion the next day.
March 28: Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, announces the opening of a testing center and becomes one of the first to have a nasal swab, or PCR, test.
• But the UAE does not only help its own citizens and residents. On March 4, 215 people from Syria, Iraq, Mauritius, Sudan, Brazil, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, who were all stranded in Wuhan, are evacuated to Abu Dhabi in a plane equipped with medical facilities. And on April 6, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, which owns the ExCel conference center in London turned it into a coronavirus hospital for up to 4,000 patients. On April 12, the UAE announces it will lay on flights to repatriate citizens of India and other countries if they wish to leave.
UAE scientists at work
• In April , a research team at Mohammed bin Rashid In University of Medicine and Health Sciences completed the UAE’s first full genome sequencing of the Covid-19 virus. Genome sequencing is valuable because it helps trace the origin of an infection, gives a better understanding of how the virus works and spreads and helps with developing treatments and vaccines.
• In May, the UAE began treating Covid patients with stem cells. The treatment involves extracting stem cells from the patient’s own blood, activating them and reintroducing the cells back into the patient in the form of a breathable fine mist. The activated stem cells regenerate lung cells and boost the immune system.
• In late July, a team in Abu Dhabi announce they have devised a way of extracting ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which carries messages between cellular organisms, allowing scientists to learn how the virus behaves and to analyze its genetic code. While RNA extraction was already possible, the necessary chemical solution had to be imported. The home-produced solution means more and faster testing.
• In July, the UAE began the final, Phase 3 clinical trials of a vaccine produced by Chinese pharmaceutical firm, Sinopharm, using a deactivated version of the virus. This is a more conventional method of developing a vaccine than the one used by scientists in the US and the UK. The world’s second biggest testing lab, built by Emirati company G42 in Masdar City, is capable of processing tens of thousands of tests daily.
• The trials are monitored by the World Health Organization, which chose the UAE as a testbed because of the diversity of its population, allowing scientists to observe how the vaccine affects people of different ethnicities. Within days of the call for volunteers going out, more than 15,000 people sign up. The total number eventually exceeds 31,000.
• In September, the UAE begins administering the Sinopharm vaccine to frontline workers.
• On December 8, the vaccine, which was pronounced 86 percent effective, is made available to the general population. Contrary to other claims, the UAE was the first country to offer a vaccine to all. A week later, the first shipment of the Pfier-Biontec vaccine arrives in Dubai.
UAE moves forward
• In November, the UAE began to see a surge in new infections, with numbers that had hovered around the 300 mark through most of the summer suddenly soaring to more than 1,000 every day and even hitting close to 2,000 on November 4.
• Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UAE has carried out one of the most extensive and comprehensive testing programs in the world, including medical teams conducting tests house-to-house. In 11 months, the UAE has conducted 19.5 million tests – more than two per head of population.
• At the time of writing, 11 months since the first confirmed case, the total number of Covid cases in the UAE is 195,878; 642 people have died.
• However the vast of majority of people who tested positive – 171,451 – have recovered and on December 22, the number of recoveries exceeds the number of new infections for the first time in seven weeks. The death rate of 0.3 percent is among the lowest in the world.
December 24: Among other measures, the Abu Dhabi government reduces quarantine periods for travelers (from 14 down to 10 days); extends the validity of DPI and PCR tests (72 hours from delivery versus 48); and increases the operational capacity of economic, tourism and entertainment activities.
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.