Dubai: The Gulf is not just about oil, gas and gold. It's a trading, tourism and aviation hub: this openness has been a key factor in the relatively early spread of the coronavirus in the region.
For one, each year, Saudi Arabia welcomes millions of pilgrims to Mecca and Madinah from everywhere — a mass movement of the faithful on a journey of a lifetime unbroken over the centuries, until the virus came.
Several Gulf cities including Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE, have become global civil aviation hubs. Dubai International alone, already the world’s busiest airport by international passengers pre-COVID-19, was clocking in more than 1,000 aircraft movements daily.
Abu Dhabi has become a centre of innovation, high-tech manufacturing, arts and culture, entertainment and tolerance (it welcomed Pope Francis a year ago, the first pontiff to set foot in the Arabian peninsula).
Every major city in the GCC hosts millions of expatriate workers from most parts of the world. There's also the constant flow of tens of thousands of tourists.
This openness became an invitation to an unseen enemy. On January 31, Dubai confirmed the first coronavirus case, a 73 year old woman, who flew from Wuhan China. The deadly pathogen, unlike polio or the seasonal flu, has no known cure.
Today, the outbreak has infected nearly 4.2 million people, with 284,000 deaths (May 11, 2020). Millions of people had been hunkered down at home for weeks, under strict social distancing measures.
It's not all bad news
There are clear signs the quarantine is working. The case fatality rate in the GCC, overall, has been relatively low, with most at under 1%, given preliminary data. With extensive testing, and proven COVID-19 therapies available now, the number is expected to go down even further.
The Gulf, the UAE in particular, has gone out of its way to help other countries, airlifting tonnes of goods and equipment to help dozens of badly-hit countries.
Here’s an outline of what happened since then in the region:
In general, there's been a coordinated national strategy to deliver an efficient and effective COVID-19 response. It's a draconian task, especially for the frontliners.
Massive COVID-19 testing has been rolled out, with an innovative drive-through centres set up across the UAE. There's been a heightened public-private sector partnerships.
Here's how the region has responded so far:
Saudi Arabia, with 34.76 million inhabitants, has a population bigger than all the rest of the GCC states put together. In terms of land area (2.15 million km2), it is also the largest country among the GCC countries. As of May 9, the Kingdom had 37,136 confirmed cases and 239 deaths.
The Saudis moved swiftly: They shut down domestic and international travel, closed businesses, and imposed 24-hour curfews on all major cities.
Saudi Arabia's daily the rate of increase has been steadier — between 10-12 percent since April 9, and not rising above 12 percent since March 31.
Saudi Arabia’s Health Minister Dr. Tawfig al-Rabiah warned that the number of cases could hit up to 200,000 within weeks, citing four different studies conducted by Saudi and foreign experts.
When taking population into account – the Kingdom has 1,068 cases per million people.
The United Arab Emirates, with a population of 9.89 million, is the second most-populous state among the GCC nations. In terms of land area (83,600 km2), it is the third-largest country among the GCC states. As of May 9, the Emirates had 17,417 confirmed cases and 185 deaths.
A 73-year-old Chinese woman was the first case recorded in the UAE, and the wider middle East on January 29, 2020. This was followed by more cases, most of whom were also Chinese tourists. The Emirates shut schools, malls, gyms, restaurants and other places where people gather. A nighttime curfew was kicked off March 26, coinciding with a national disinfection drive. On April 4, Dubai extended the curfew to last 24-hours a day with movement permits required. Dubai also quarantined the high-density and commercial district of Al Ras.
The UAE was first to introduce a drive-through COVID-19 test centre, as part of a nationwide drive to boost testing capabilities. After the first centre was set in Abu Dhabi, the same facilities had been rolled out across the country, including Fujairah. The country has also set up an industrial-scale testing lab with genomics company BGI and Abu Dhabi tech company Group 42 (G42), alongside a home-testing service for people of determination.
When taking population into account – the UAE has 1,761 cases per million people.
With the second-highest number of total infections in the GCC (21,331), Qatar has the GCC's highest number of cases per million at 7,406. However, it also has the lowest CFR at 0.06%, with 13 deaths recorded as of May 10, 2020.
Qatar's confirmed its first coronavirus case on February 27. From mid-March, the numbers kept on rising with extensive test drive across the peninsula.
Qatar’s 2.75 million people have seen a relatively high number of cases with 21,331 testing positive.
However, its death rate, with 13 fatalities, is one of the world's lowest. Experts say it’s due to the country's young population and mandatory health checks for its vast foreign workforce.
A two-day pilot launched on Wednesday has seen asymptomatic residents. Citizens were contacted and invited to participate in voluntary tests at several clinics across the country. Migrant labourers in the industrial district and Qataris returning from virus hotspots, like Iran, have been the focus of vigorous testing efforts, along with those found to have been in contact with them.
The island nation confirmed its first case, a Bahraini citizen, on February 24, followed by a number of cases who came from Iran. The large number of cases imported from Iran prompted Bahraini officials to accuse the Iranian government of “biological aggression”.
On March 16, Bahrain reported first death, and the first death in the Gulf, due to COVID-19. The first fatality was a 65-year-old woman who died from COVID-19 while suffering from a pre-existing chronic health issue.
Bahrain has the fifth-highest number of total cases in the GCC, at 4,911 as of Monday (May 11, 2020), but with a rate of 2,888 cases per million population — the second highest in the Gulf.
Bahrain shuttered non-essential shops and businesses in late March and barred entry of foreign visitors, but did not impose a curfew. On May 6, the country was among the first to announce easing of restrictions, reopening several malls.
The first three cases in Kuwait were announced on February 24, all of which had arrived from Iran which was witnessing an explosion of cases at the time. Subsequent cases confirmed in Kuwait were also people arriving from Iran. Kuwait has the recorded 8,688 number infections as of Monday (May 11, 2020), or 2,026 cases per million population. The first death due to COVID-19 was announced on April 4.
On March 22, Kuwait imposed a nationwide 11-hour curfew, which starts from 5pm until 4am. Heavy fines were slapped on those who flouted the rules, with violators facing up to 3 years in jail. Kuwait has also shut schools and closed businesses, like its GCC neighbours. Kuwait has the recorded 8,688 number infections as of Monday (May 11, 2020), or 2,026 cases per million population.
On May 10 (Sunday), after a spike in cases, Kuwait imposed total curfew until May 30.
On February 24, Oman announced its first two cases — two Omani women who came from Iran. Among the GCC states, Oman has recorded the lowest number of coronavirus cases, with 3,399 and 17 deaths as of May 11. The 175 new cases comprise 52 Omanis and 123 expats. The Sultanate has so far recorded 738 cases per million people.
The Omani government has put some measures in place, including a complete lockdown of Muscat, where most cases were seen. However, the rest of the country is not under a complete curfew or lockdown. The overall number of recoveries in the country has risen to 1,117, with a case fatality rate of 0.50% based on current data.
While Oman has the lowest number of cases so far, the rate of new cases has been on the rise in April to early May. The Omani Minister of Health warned the country was about to see a spike in cases. Omani Health Minister Ahmad Al Saidi said the virus is still swiftly spreading and that related critical cases as well as fatalities are on the rise. "It has been noticed in the month of Ramadan in many governorates unjustified gatherings and moving out," the minister told the official news agency. He also cited many cases of flouting social distancing rules.
UAE's response: Stem cell therapy
In the midst of the pandemic, it's not all bad news. The GCC has kept a relatively low case fatality rate from COVID-19. UAE has been sending aid flights to dozens of countries.
In what's been described as a breakthrough, scientists in Abu Dhabi have also have found game-changing stem cell therapy for it.
On May 1, the UAE has announced an effective treatment for COVID-19 patients. Using stem cell therapy, it involves taking (aspirating) blood from the patient, then using a patented technique to activate these cells so that they can turn into an aerosolised agent that can then get inhaled by the patient.
By breathing the patient's own cultivated stem cells, it is hypothesised to have its therapeutic effect by regenerating lung cells and modulating the immune response to keep it from overreacting to the COVID-19 infection and causing further damage to healthy cells. The treatment, which has cured 73 patients so far in Abu Dhabi, has been given to patients along with the conventional medical intervention and will continue to be applied as an adjunct to established treatment protocols rather than as a replacement.
On Saturday (May 9, 2020), His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has ordered the payment of the costfor stem cell treatment for critical patients in the country.
STEM CELL THERAPY By breathing the patient's own cultivated stem cells, it is hypothesised to have its therapeutic effect by regenerating lung cells and modulating the immune response to keep it from overreacting to the COVID-19 infection and causing further damage to healthy cells. The treatment, which has cured 73 patients so far in Abu Dhabi, has been given to patients along with the conventional medical intervention and will continue to be applied as an adjunct to established treatment protocols rather than as a replacement.
Along with repurposed drugs that show promise of working against COVID-19, many now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
- Until recently, this virus that jumped from bats to people is China — and continues to threaten all of humanity’s lungs — seemed like an agent from the gates of hell.
- Man's ability to create and adapt is the hallmark of development. It's not the exclusive domain of any country.
- This pioneering spirit is alive in the Gulf, a region not only abundant in mineral wealth, but defined by a spirit of giving.
- The outcome of a UAE research team's work on stem cell therapy to cure coronavirus patients has been dubbed as a "game-changer", a godsend.Its mechanism of action is via inhalation of aerosolised stem cells harvested from the patient and amplified in a lab that, when inhale, curbs lung tissue damage.
- Though described as “therapeutic, not curative”, 73 clinical cases of COVID-19 patients had reportedly been discharged after being cured.
- Could the therapy then be "open-sourced" by the patent holders so its benefits can be more rapidly dispersed around the world and alleviate great amount of suffering inflicted by COVID-19? It's up to them to decide. But there's no doubt the team that developed it deserve recognition for the work they've done.
- Now, if recent data show that the case fataliry rate (CFR) from COVID-19 is no worse than seasonal flu (0.01%), and UAE scientists have found game-changing therapy for it, the next likely scenario is limited only by one's imagination.
- The Gulf has been defined by a can-do spirit, enshrined in Expo 2020 Dubai theme: "Connecting minds, creating the future". Despite the one-year delay of this global party, the Gulf remains a region that wants to get great things done, where the word "impossible" has become void.
- The GCC, together, has abundant "soft power" and the right attitude for the world trying to find ways start afresh.
Timeline of COVID-19 in the GCC
November 17, 2019: Earliest confirmed report of a case of "pneumonia of unknown cause", a 55-year-old man from Hubei, according to an SCMP report, citing official records.
December 1, 2019: Clinicians in Wuhan see a series of "pneumonia cases of unknown cause" emerging, reported The Lancet.
December 29, 2019 and Jan 4, 2020: Six members of a family travel to Wuhan from Shenzhen and all got infected with “unexplained pneumonia” after returning to Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. The researchers, who analysed genetic sequences from these patients, also saw evidence of a person-to-person transmission of the virus. In The Lancet, the researchers wrote: "One of the family members had contacts with Wuhan markets or animals, although two had visited a Wuhan hospital. Five family members (aged 36–66 years) presented with…(symptoms) 3–6 days after exposure.” An additional family member who did not travel to Wuhan also fell ill.
January 1, 2020: Chinese authorities shut down Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
January 24, 2020: Chinese researchers publish a study showing the SARS-CoV-2 virus (then called nCov-2019) did not jump from animals to humans in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan. The research did not identify the place where the other patients (66% of positive patients were traced to the market) got their infection from.
January 24: Researchers in Hong Kong, led by Chan JF, Yuan SKok KHet al. also publish separate clinical study in The Lancet confirming “person-to-person transmission of this novel coronavirus in hospital and family settings, and the reports of infected traveller in other geographical regions.”
January 28: NEJM publishes an article further further confirming evidence of person-to-person transmission. Vietnamese researchers Phan LT, Nguyen TV, Luong QC, et al. wrote the report titled: “Importation and human-to-human transmission of a novel coronavirus in Vietnam.” N Engl J Med. 2020.
January 28: Dubai port operator DP World suspends staff travel to China.
January 29: UAE confirms a case of coronavirus, a 73-year-old Chinese woman It was the first case in the wider Middle East. The announcement was followed shortly by several other cases, most of whom were also Chinese tourists.
January 31, 2020: The WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declares the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern".
January 31: Etihad Airways suspends flights between Nagoya and Beijing in wake of coronavirus outbreak
February 3: UAE announces suspension of all China flights, except Beijing, from February 5.
February 3, 2020: Oman’s Public Authority for Civil Aviation (PACA) announces suspension of all Oman Air flights to and from Guangzhou, China.
February 21: Bahrain announces its first case of novel coronavirus, following by a number of cases who had come directly or indirectly from Iran.
February 24: Oman announces its first two cases of COVID-19; Bahrain and Kuwait announce first cases of coronavirus disease.
February 25: Bahrain suspends flights from Dubai, Sharjah for 48 hours over coronavirus.
February 27: First coronavirus case in Qatar confirmed.
February 27: Saudi nationals and GCC citizens temporarily suspended from using national identity cards to travel to and from the Kingdom.
March 12: WHO declares COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Rapid escalation of COVID-19 in Europe, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases and 1,000 deaths in the zone.
March 15: Dubai disinfects its streets, public seats, doors, elevators against coronavirus spread.
March 19: Emirati businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor donates 50 ambulances and quarantine building unit
March 20: Dubai starts massive coronavirus sterilisation drive of city streets. Residents advised to keep off the streets during disinfection drive.
March 20: Qatar places its largest labour camp for migrant workers in total lockdown after hundreds of construction workers became infected with COVID-19.
March 22: Emirates suspends more flights across globe, flights to destinations in Asia, Australia, Europe, Americas affected.
March 28: UAE opens first mobile drive-thru COVID-19 test centre . Checks done in 5 minutes at new test facility.
March 29: Dubai-based Indian businessman donates entire property for quarantine.
March 30: Dubai announces 2 weeks of restrictions for Al Ras area to intensify sterilisation.
March 30: UAE helps set up a 4,000-bed "NHS Nightingale Hospital" for COVID-19 patients in the UK.
March 31: RTA announces closure of 3 Dubai Metro stations on the Green Line (Al Ras, Palm Deira and Baniyas Square stations) for two-weeks.
March 31: Oman reports first COVID-19 death.
March 31: Saudis urged more than 1 million Muslims intending to perform the haj to delay making plans this 2020.
JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME Each year, up to 2 million Muslims perform the Haj, which all able-bodied Muslims with the means are required to perform once in their lifetime. For many, the Haj takes years of planning and savings, and among the faithful, it is seen as a journey of faith, a journey of a lifetime.
April 1: Saudi Arabia places Mecca and Medina on 24-hour curfew. The same was imposed in the capital Riyadh, as well as Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran, Hofuf, Jeddah, Taif and Khobar, and the region of Qatif. Residents are allowed to leave their homes only for medical or food needs inside their neighbourhoods between 6am and 3pm.
April 4: Kuwait announces the first death from the COVID-19 in the country, with 62 new cases of the disease recorded, taking the total in the country to 479.
April 5: Two aid planes carrying medical supplies fly from UAE to Pakistan.
April 6: Abu Dhabi announces sterilisation drive hours, from 8pm and 6am; Kuwait places Mahboula and Jleeb Al Shuyoukh districts — two hubs for expatriate workers — under total lockdown for two weeks.
April 15: Bahrain converts car park into COVID-19 hospital. At the makeshift ICU of the hospital in Riffa, each bed is equipped with a ventilator
April 15: Field hospital at Dubai World Trade Centre with capacity to treat 3,000 COVID-19 patients opens. Dubai Police use 3D printing, provides 1,000 3D-printed face shields to frontline personnel.
April 17: Dubai extends its sterilisation programme.
April 20: Kuwait expands nationwide curfew to 16 hours a day, from 4 p.m to 8 a.m, and extended a suspension of work in the public sector, including government ministries, until May 31.
April 21: The UAE’s aid planes have carried approximately 260 tonnes of medical and food aid to 24 countries in the region and beyond since the outbreak of pandemic COVID-19.
April 26: Dubai eases movement restrictions in Al Ras, Naif. Decision comes as both areas record zero COVID-19 cases in last two days
April 28: Dubai’s Naif residents celebrate after easing movement restrictions.
April 29: RTA reopens Al Ras, Palm Deira and Baniyas metro stations on April 29.
May 1: UAE announces breakthrough treatment for COVID-19 patients, using stem cell therapy.
May 2: The UAE sends an aid plane containing seven metric tons of medical supplies to India to bolster the country's efforts to curb the coronavirus.
May 4: Saudis use ozone technology to sterilise Grand Mosque and Kaabah in Mecca.
May 7: Qatar launches a drive-through coronavirus testing programme to test wider population beyond the worst-affected groups where tests had been targeted.
May 8: The number of coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia exceeded 35,000.
May 8: Kuwait announces "total curfew" from 4 p.m on Sunday, May 10, through May 30.
May 8: Robot doctor named “Dr. B2” unveiled in Saudi Arabia's King Salman hospital in Riyadh. it allows the hospital to limit the amount of direct contact doctors and nurses have with patients, thus reducing the risk of infection.
May 9: Etihad Airways starts operating limited one-way flights to Abu Dhabi to enable residents to return to the UAE from different parts of the world, according to the latest update provided by the airline.
Mnay 10: The UAE send aid planes to Sierra Leone, Niger and Mali to bolster their efforts in curbing the spread of coronavirus. A total of 19 metric tonnes of aid were to help 19,000 healthcare workers.
In the Gulf, the containment moves include: 24-hour curfews, shutting down Mecca and Madina to pilgrims (in Saudi Arabia), massive tests and deep cleaning or public transport and public roads. In the Gulf, as in most parts of the globe, weeks of movement restrictions became the new normal.
Containment measures implemented in the GCC:
- Curfews, stay-in-place orders
- Work-from-home measures
- Border closures
- Travel restrictions
- Area-specific quarantine (UAE)
- Suspension of Umrah pilgrimages (Saudi Arabia)
- Stopped prayers are mosques, churches, other places of worship
- Grounding of passenger flights
- Closure of most public venues
- Shutdown of public transport
- Mass testing, with drive-thru tests stated by the UAE
- Ramped up tests in high population-density districts (Al Ras in Dubai, Mussafa in Abu Dhabi)