I like to think of myself as someone who is mindful of the greater good. Nevertheless, when the UAE called for volunteers for Phase 3 trials of the Covid-19 vaccine, I did not step up. I did not fancy being a guinea-pig for testing a totally unknown drug, no sir.
But it’s funny how self-interest makes you reassess. When the UK, my home country, lifted the quarantine requirement for people arriving from the UAE, I booked a flight immediately. I knew I would have to provide a negative Covid test before both the outward and return flights. I would also have to quarantine for 14 days back in Abu Dhabi with an electronic tag on my wrist.
None of that bothered me, except for the bit about getting tested in the UK. I had no idea if I could get tested and get a result within the required 96-hour time frame – or even if I could get a test at all because, frankly, the UK is in rather a mess over Covid. But if I was vaccinated, at least I could avoid quarantine on my return.
Then I found out that a teacher friend had had his first Covid-19 vaccine dose in Abu Dhabi. Then someone else I knew had his first dose. Neither of them is a frontline worker. I decided I had nothing to lose by asking if I could get one too. I didn’t have an appointment and didn’t even know if I needed one, but thought I would take my chances. The worst that could happen is that they’d simply tell me to go home.
The vaccination center at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC) is housed in a huge, hangar-like space filled with portacabins. It’s full of staff bustling about busily but nobody seems overstretched or stressed. The impression is of a well-oiled machine running on very smooth rails.
At the entrance, a man took my temperature and asked me if I’d ever had a Covid test. Yes, I said, at the end of July and it was negative. I showed him the message I’d received at the time but he frowned. “It’s too long ago,” he said. “But never mind,” he added, “see what they say. Go to Gate 9.”
In fact, nobody else asked me if or when I’d taken a Covid test.
The Covid-19 vaccine is administered in two doses. Staff at Gate 9 separated the first dose candidates from the second-timers.
The first step is to register at one of a long bank of kiosks. I was ushered toward rows of seats arranged so that you faced the back of the person in front of you and you moved up a seat every time someone was called for registration. There are plenty of staff on hand to keep things moving.When my section filled up and ran out of chairs, we were all taken round the corner to where an extra booth was opened up.
I decided I should find out sooner rather than later whether I was wasting my time. “If I have the first dose today, when do I get the second?” I asked.
“Twenty-one days from now, so December 28,” the registration clerk replied.
“What if I’m away then?”
“No problem, you can come anytime after 14 days,” said the clerk. Marvelous!
After registration, you proceed to the Clinic section, where a nurse took my blood pressure and oxygen readings and recorded my weight and height. I was also given a folder containing two consent forms (one for me, one for them) and a diagram outlining my “vaccination journey,” which told me to expect a phone call within a week of each dose of the vaccine and a request to return for a follow-up visit after 35 days.
Then I was shown to another bank of cabins to await a consultation with a doctor, who countersigned my consent form and asked a couple of questions, including whether I had any allergies and where my place of employment was. At this point, I thought I would be politely shown the door – after all, by no stretch of the imagination could I call myself a frontline worker. I’m not essential to anyone.
But no. With forms signed, it was off to sit outside another set of cabins and wait to be called in for the vaccine. Each dose is remeasured and comes in its own box with its own applicator so there appears to be zero chance of contamination. I have no fear of needles but for those who do, let me assure you that this injection was administered with such skill, care and speed that I didn’t even feel it.
Having the Covid-19 vaccine vaccine means an E symbol is added to your details on the Al Hosn app, which means you are exempt from quarantine even if traveling into the UAE from abroad. But that can take up to 28 days, I was told. I would need something to show before boarding my return flight, so I requested something in writing – and got it with no argument: a sick leave note signed and officially stamped by a doctor, which clearly states I have attended a Department of Health medical facility for the purpose of immunization.
The last stage was a 30-minute sit-down in the observation section, just so they can keep an eye on you in case you feel unwell. And that was it – I was done. The entire procedure, including waiting time, had taken around 90 minutes. And the waiting time between each stages was minimal; the longest I waited anywhere was 10 minutes.
As a process, it was efficient, speedy and smooth; I imagine that if you went first thing (the center is open from 8am to 8pm), there would be no waiting time at all. The staff are obviously extremely well-practiced and give off a reassuring air of knowing exactly what they’re doing. And – amazingly – it cost me absolutely nothing.
What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that the vaccine was by then available to residents of Abu Dhabi on a voluntary basis. Besides the vaccination center at ADNEC, you can visit clinics run by the Emirate’s public hospital group, SEHA.
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.