International Update : Dubai Fires Health Chief as Covid-19 Infections Surge

Insight Online News

By Stephen Kalin

Dubai replaced the head of its health department Sunday after the Middle East’s tourism and commercial hub reimposed some coronavirus restrictions amid the worst surge of infections since the pandemic began.

United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also ruler of Dubai, appointed Awad Saghir Al Ketbi as director general of the Dubai Health Authority, according to the Dubai Media Office. No specific reason was given for the change. He replaced Humaid al-Qutami, who held the position since 2018.

The U.A.E., a federation of seven emirates including Dubai, has reported more than 3,000 new cases daily over the past two weeks. That is more than triple the rate recorded last spring, when authorities suspended international flights, closed malls, beaches and restaurants and imposed a nighttime curfew.

This time around, Dubai has stayed open, hosting alcohol-fueled holiday brunches and welcoming European tourists to escape winter lockdowns back home for the Persian Gulf emirate’s beaches and party scene.

Yet in the past month a rise in infected tourists returning home prompted Britain and Israel to require travelers returning from the U.A.E. to enter quarantine, ending country-specific loopholes. Denmark suspended incoming flights last week over concerns about testing, and neighboring Oman has closed its land borders for two weeks.

As infections continued to rise last week, Dubai imposed some new but limited restrictions: Hospitals were directed to postpone elective therapeutic surgeries for a month, while restaurants, cafes and gyms must increase social distancing from two meters (6.5 feet) to three.

The authorities said entertainment in hotels and restaurants also would be suspended. But large events remain unaffected, including the Art Dubai fair and the international Dubai Food Festival as well as live concerts by Egyptian star Amr Diab and Algerian-French singer Enrico Macias at the city’s sports stadium and opera house.

“The economic reality is this city has opened up because it needs to,” said Hasnain Malik, head of equity strategy at financial bank Tellimer in Dubai. “You can’t have a city that’s dependent on travel, trade, tourism, hospitality, retail—with hotel occupancies below 40% for many, many months in a row. The economic scarring that would result from that is just too painful.”

Mr. Malik said improved testing and better understanding of how to treat the virus were keeping Covid-19-related death rates in the U.A.E. low despite the tripling of reported infections. Fatalities for the U.A.E. are averaging about six a day, down from 10 last May. Data isn’t available for individual emirates.

Dubai has long vied for foreign wealth, positioning itself to benefit from rising global travel. The pandemic has threatened to debilitate its economy, including by forcing the delay of a world exposition it hopes will attract 25 million visitors over a six-month period and boost state revenue.

Determined to stay open, the U.A.E. has embarked on the world’s second-fastest Covid-19 vaccination campaign, trailing only Israel, saying it seeks to inoculate more than half its population of 9.9 million by March.

It is betting that such a rapid rollout will stem and reverse the recent surge in infections and allow its economy to avoid the lockdowns and closures that have paralyzed much of the U.S. and Europe.

The Dubai Health Authority said Saturday it was rescheduling the first dose of the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, reserved for those over 60 and with chronic conditions, due to a manufacturing delay.


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