Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

What the Covid-19 lockdown looks like in...Dubai, UAE

For a city that thrives on being a nodal point connecting farflung places across the globe, a halted airport spells imminent doom

Published: Apr 23, 2020 02:00:44 PM IST

What the Covid-19 lockdown looks like in...Dubai, UAEA view of the empty access road to the arrival hall of Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport
Image: Christopher Pike / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The reverberating sound of a fast car’s engine, juxtaposed with the chirping of sparrows and the shrill calls of sunbirds, though incongruous, are normal here in Dubai. But things have changed. The birds are thankfully still around, but the city of speed has gone eerily silent.

About a month ago, in early March, when I landed at the airport, everything seemed normal. I felt out of place and silly as I donned my mask before joining the immigration queues. Looking at the list of flight arrivals and the crowds, Covid-19 seemed like a figment of someone’s imagination. The only change was that everyone exiting the airport had to walk past heat sensors, monitored by a uniformed man.

Fast forward to mid-April. The airport has come to a grinding halt; except for cargo flights, all aircraft have been grounded till further notice. For a city that thrives on being a nodal point connecting far-flung places across the globe, this is imminent doom.

The first big clampdown came on March 4, when schools across the city shut with a day’s notice. Spring break was brought forward and schools were told to start lessons online; initially, children prepared to study from home for two weeks, and then it was extended till June. Parents scrambled for devices and tables for children to work on. A school WhatsApp group I am part of was abuzz with irate parents, juggling working from home, technology issues and teaching kids.

After schools, many workplaces asked their employees to work from home. Slowly and steadily, as further stringent measures were introduced, both anxiety and uncertainty spread. People could exercise outdoors if they maintained adequate social distance, but gradually all sorts of outdoor activity were stopped. As of today, no one can leave their homes without a permit to visit even the nearest supermarket. We need to fill our personal details on a government website, and the reason why we need to step out, and a permit is granted. It’s a fairly easy and hassle-free experience, but the government gets to monitor our movements.

What the Covid-19 lockdown looks like in...Dubai, UAESupermarkets in Dubai are well-stocked despite the lockdown
Image: Christopher Pike / Reuters
Even as images of empty store shelves from cities around the world flooded the internet, in Dubai the supermarkets are well stocked, and operate normally while following safety precautions mandated by the government. Customers are instructed to wear masks; many also wear gloves. All trolley handles are given a wipe down before every use, and stickers on the floor indicate the safe distance to maintain from the next person in queue and from the cashier.

I feel like an actor getting ready to go up on stage every time I step out of home, as I put on my mask and gloves. My drama, though, is limited to constantly sanitising my hands and every surface I touch, as well as taking a step back and away from the person nearest to me. Strange are these times, and stranger will be the effects they’ll have on us all in the days to come.

Whatever my grievances are, there are umpteen blessings to be grateful for. Like most expats in Dubai, we live well in our bubbles with all possible creature comforts, a well-stocked pantry and glitch-less wifi. Worries about family and friends around the world, possible pay cuts or job losses, and other economic fallouts of this pandemic sit somewhere in the recesses of my mind. But, as of now, I choose not to dwell on these. How long this will last is also a question for another time.

What the Covid-19 lockdown looks like in...Dubai, UAECitizens exercise while maintaining a distance between themselves
Image: Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

Over the weeks my worldview has expanded, but my field of view has shrunk. I know what’s happening in far-off corners of the world as I keep track of Covid-19 numbers, but I don’t know what’s happening in the park behind my house, its view blocked by a low-rise building. It’s the time of year when the gulmohar trees will slowly burst to life. These are small markers that give me a sense of rootedness. I know that spring is here as sunbirds flit about the few flowers in our little garden. Soon, cooler mornings and pleasant evenings will become a distant memory as summer sets in. Then, the confinement indoors will be total.

As someone who works from home, I am used to minimal social interactions and spending long hours indoors. However, the indoors I am accustomed to has transformed. The noises outside on the street have reduced, while the commotion within the four walls of our house has grown.

I struggle to find my writing zone amidst the many interruptions, from a teething puppy who demands constant attention to a perennially hungry child. Like almost all travel writers, I am grappling with a slew of rejections, lack of demand for articles, and a highly uncertain future.

My husband, who always said he could never work from home, has adapted to his new arrangement extraordinarily well, and clocks in nine hours every day. Our daughter is thriving, with the freedom that the lack of a rigid timetable brings and no extra-curricular activities eating into her time. This confinement is like an extended vacation for her, albeit strange without friends and activity.

I often wonder how she’ll look back at this period of her life when she grows up. Will it just be an aberration or will it leave a deeper mark? I go to bed with a stash of unanswered questions and wake up with several more.