Covid-19 pandemic: Communities deserve a big hug

Dubai - As millions pick up pieces of their lives after weeping silent, distant tears following the loss of family and friends, our communities again beckon us to their fold.


Allan Jacob

Published: Wed 30 Dec 2020, 12:53 PM

Communities deserve a big hug when the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic is over. When distances pale into the distance and the power of healing touch returns to take over our lives and make us whole again.

How about a warm embrace or shaking an unsanitised hand once the final rites for the Covid-19 are over and done with in 2021. Who knows, tears may flow when people meet and make up for the lost year that had split them and made them physical (not social) strangers.

Disease and death have ravaged us in 2020, lives have been damaged, but did community bonds grow stronger despite the distance that has widened and has gone online? For me, the answers came from the Naif neighbourhood in Dubai, where local communities took charge and healed together in March and April after containing the initial surge of Covid-19 that threatened all that they had built over decades.

It was a communal fightback that was nonpareil and had the support of doctors, social workers, medical professionals, police and, of course, the government machinery in Dubai.

Across the UAE and the world, communities found a larger purpose during the pandemic. It made them stronger, resilient and aware about their safety and health. In the ‘pandemic communities’ of the new abnormal, neighbours matter. No man, woman or child shall be left behind.

So, last week, I turned my thoughts to the brave folks of Naif that is again bustling with activity. I remember walking the narrow lanes of this old Dubai neighbourhood and taking in the sights, sounds, smells and smiles when I came here 14 years ago. To understand a city and its origins, one must visit its unique community hubs. Deira and Bur Dubai captivated me back in 2006. However, Naif caught my eye, and I have been fascinated about its relationship quotient.

I loved its spunk and attitude those days; the smell of spices; the tiny shops selling perfumes and sweets. The traders were a vibrant lot and pushed assorted merchandise to tourists hoping to strike a bargain. In short, it hummed with life and commerce. There was room for everyone despite its size.

Cramped lanes and shops did not deter people from chatting over a hot cup of chai or munching down a shawarma. Naif talked to me in many profound ways. It fired my imagination and satiated my senses.

I was looking out for the people of Naif during the Covid-19-induced lockdown restrictions in March and April when it was shut to outsiders like me while it was being cleaned, sterilised and rid of the raging SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. Thousands who lived there were fed daily. Here was a community in action, a community that cared, a community that served.

Shabeer Kizhur, who led a team of social workers in the neighbourhood, during the two months that it was sealed off, simply said “people helped with their hearts” when I asked him for details. Communal memory is short, but reminders about what humans can do when there is collective will could serve us well during future crises.

Each and every community member jumped in and made a difference, said Shabeer. Flights to and from the UAE were banned during those months. This was home, this was community. These are our friends. Naif’s communities chose to stay and launch a counter-offensive and prevent the viral strain from spreading. From end-March to April, 120,000 cooked food packets were distributed daily in the area. Social workers from voluntary organisations said a million food kits were also supplied to 500,000 residents during the campaign. No one was hungry.

While thinking of Naif, this longing for community resonated in other parts of the world too, like the United Kingdom (UK). I tuned in to Queen Elizabeth’s speech on Christmas Day for some clarity. The speech welled up tears in my eyes for the monarch spoke of a global community and collective angst.

This was the Queen’s 69th Christmas message and she seems to be getting better with age and smarter with technology. I was reading about the history of royal speeches and realised it was a tradition begun by her father King George V.

English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist Rudyard Kipling wrote King George V’s first speech in 1932 but his daughter -- the longest-serving modern royal -- has since embraced the ritual and made it her own with a distinctive style of delivery that is well articulated and profound.

I’ve never admitted it before but I was hanging on to every word she said, more so this year, when I was distant from my larger family and community. My wife and I have vowed to visit the communities we hail from, in Maharashtra and Kerala, when it is safer to travel. The kids need to know their roots and be grounded, in community, we have resolved. Time is short.

As millions pick up pieces of their lives after weeping silent, distant tears following the loss of family and friends, our communities again beckon us to their fold. For me, the recovery process began in communities like Naif. They have taught me to breathe again, without fear.

Meanwhile, on TV, the Queen seemed close when she spoke, though she looked like her stern self. I even felt she choked at times. She then said the words I wanted to hear. “Of course, for many, this time of year will be tinged with sadness; some mourning the loss of those dear to them, and others missing friends and family members distanced for safety when all they really want for Christmas is a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,” she said.

She was appealing to our sense of community, the same communities that we often ignore or walk out on when there are disagreements or disquiet.

It’s important that people embrace the positive strains in these groups which kept us going in our darkest hours. Some may return to their home communities for a hug when all this is over. As for me, inspiration began in humble Naif. I am thankful to this battle-scarred but bustling community for lifting the pall of gloom about the pandemic.

Like them, I stayed at home and fought those demons. I rooted for them during their fight and celebrated with the larger UAE community after they triumphed. I watched them marching through the streets when victory was declared. Mounted police accompanied them, people on balconies cheered, some beat drums. Drivers in cars went on a honking frenzy.

I read of early Covid-19 clusters in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province and Lombardy in Italy when the pathogen began to spread. I recollect speaking to our columnist in Italy, who felt alone, fearful and lost even as the community banded together in the UAE. Medical clusters can kill the spirit of communities when the strain spreads. People give up without a fight.

Naif, however, refused to be cowed down and beaten back by a germ; the folks here fought like their lives depended on it. They deserve a big hug and a round of applause into the New Year.

KT file photo
KT file photo

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