Opinion and Editorial

UAE: Slow unmasking of the nation and welcome return of fresh air

rasha@khaleejtimes.com Filed on October 4, 2021 | Last updated on October 4, 2021 at 12.09 am
Reuters file

It is now our collective responsibility to make sure that the permission to lift some restrictions can lead to a further easing as time goes by.

The UAE recently announced the relaxing of rules regarding the wearing of face masks after a significant decline in Covid-19 infection rates. According to the latest available figures, the country has recorded a total of 735,727 cases, 728,195 recoveries and 2,095 deaths since the first Covid-19 case was detected on January 29, 2020, an enviable record in a pandemic that has caused the deaths of so many people worldwide. Cases have dropped to below 200 since reaching close to 4,000 a day in January as widespread testing and tracing, strong safety measures and a high vaccination rate have been credited for bringing down daily infections.

This remarkable result has led the UAE to begin an easing of some of the more stringent measures in place to reduce the risk of spreading the disease, and we are now able to remain unmasked in certain situations.

For me, it was a welcome relief to hear about the lifting of some restrictions, starting with the reopening of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border and then the easing of mask rules. It finally feels like the end could be near and the normality we once knew might be the new normal again, which is a wish I have for the children who know nothing about this ‘old’ normal, including my own two-and-a-half year-olds. Children have been losing out on everyday interactions and have developed difficulties in picking up social cues. Parents around the world have voiced concern over how this could interfere with their children’s development, including speech, language and social interactions. Although the new easing of mask rules will not change how things are currently, any change is welcome and it is a small step in the right direction as we become closer to declaring victory against the virus and realising that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.

However, despite never having heard a single complaint or rant about wearing a mask in public in the UAE, we must still be diligent in our respect for the rules, and each other. Even while knowing that there is a Dh3,000 fine for not wearing a mask, I’ve seen many people wear them incorrectly, including doctors, but as medical appointments and examinations are now in the category of ‘not necessary for masks’, that is perhaps no longer an issue.

What is still an issue is the apparent lack of awareness about the benefits of mask-wearing to protect others from infection — a mask will not necessarily stop wearers from catching a virus, but it will reduce the chance of them infecting others. My mask protects you, yours protects me, which is why it is sensible for the authorities to maintain a rigorous system of social distancing and protective action in public places for the time being.

When you think about where we live, the veiling of the face has been a common cultural practice for generations, and I can’t imagine what it would be like travelling with a caravan to Al Ain or Dubai without suitable face protection from the desert elements. Japanese and Far East Asian folk have been wearing face masks in public for a host of cultural and environmental reasons, including protection from pollution, since at least the 1950s, but mostly as a cultural courtesy towards others if there is a sickness in the family, they are accustomed to the necessity, having lived through Sars in 2003.

Interestingly enough, just as our young children will need to learn about social interaction in the pre-Covid times, so will we adults, because I experienced anxiety myself when attending a routine medical appointment and needed to take off my mask which, I actually felt, was inappropriate!

There are other elements to mask-wearing that we may not be aware of but have a profound effect on others; such as the hearing impaired, who are experiencing great difficulties as they are unable to lip-read a masked person. Some people who rely heavily on social cues from facial expressions to navigate their daily lives are also disadvantaged.

For people who experience these hardships and others like them, the unmasking of the nation cannot come soon enough, but there are some things that I may just miss a little bit when we are finally able to unmask. Top of this list is the convenience of make-up free days and not having to deal with the occasional bad breath, followed by the use of face coverings to create an air of mystery and the convenience of being unidentifiable. And, of course, the home-crafted masks that show a sense of humour, fashionable style and individual personality.

At the moment, a totally unmasked UAE is still a distant aspiration: there is still a fine for not following the rules. Medical or fabric face masks are compulsory for people in closed public spaces, shopping malls and on public transport means. You should even remain masked up while walking in open places, and drivers and passengers in private vehicles must remain masked unless the driver is alone or the passengers are from the same household.

But face masks may be removed (it’s worth pointing out that the word ‘may’ implies that if you want, you can still keep a mask on during these activities) while eating or drinking in cafes and restaurants; if you suffer from pulmonary or respiratory diseases documented in a medical report; when exercising or playing a sport alone; working individually in an office or while alone in an indoor place; travelling in a private vehicle with members of the same household; when being medically examined; if a person of determination with a severe disability; and if in a barber shop or salon (at last, I can get my hair cut in comfort). In all other public places, including public and private gatherings, masks are still required.

We all know that face masks are among the strongest tools to fight Covid-19. Several countries have relaxed rules around masks only to reintroduce them later in the fight against surges in daily infections or new strains of the virus.

The UAE authorities’ medical and social policies since the very beginning of the outbreak have obviously had the most amazing success as restrictions are lifted. It is now our collective responsibility to make sure that this hard-earned permission to lift some restrictions can lead to a further easing as time goes by. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this may not be the end — but it is perhaps the beginning of the end. rasha@khaleejtimes.com

Rasha Abu Baker

Rasha Abu Baker is an Emirati journalist and editor. She is Associate Editor and Bureau Chief at Khaleej Times, Abu Dhabi and has a special enthusiasm for human-interest stories, feature-writing and profile interviews.

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