Covid UAE: When coronavirus hushed the Naif rush

Volunteers and health workers screen residents for Covid-19 in Naif last year.— File photo by Juidin Bernarrd
Volunteers and health workers screen residents for Covid-19 in Naif last year.— File photo by Juidin Bernarrd

Dubai - One year after the district was placed under strict quarantine, residents recall how the pandemic changed their daily grind


Dhanusha Gokulan

Published: Fri 26 Mar 2021, 11:55 PM

Last updated: Sun 28 Mar 2021, 8:51 AM

Naif Street is always busy, said Mohammed Qaseem, an employee of Shams Naif Furniture located at the heart of the district in Dubai. “From the time the sun rises until it sets, it’s full of life. It gets a little quiet only after 2am till 7am.”

For over 17 years, Qaseem has been waking up to the hustle and bustle of his neighbourhood — until Covid-19 hit in 2020. He and his companions witnessed something that changed their lives forever.

A year ago, Naif was one of the first to be placed in strict quarantine in Dubai. Streets were sealed off, while an intense sterilisation programme kept everyone indoors 24 hours for a month. Healthcare workers combed the densely populated area, testing residents one after another.

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To control the spread of Covid-19, the emirate’s Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management closed all entry and exit points into the neighbourhood on March 28 last year. During that time, nearly 60,000 tests were carried out in the district alone. Movement restrictions were eventually eased on April 26, 2020.

“It was bizarre and unreal for all of us,” said Qaseem, who lives with eight roommates.

“Now, it all seems like a distant memory. If you look at Naif today, you can never tell that we were placed in a lockdown. Everything is back to normal, except for the masks and social distancing.”

Shopkeeper Anwar Mohammed remembered being cooped up at home with his seven roommates “for a month and three days”. But what he won’t forget was all the help they received throughout the experience.

“No one in Naif faced any difficulties. Volunteers served us good food twice a day. It was mostly biryani, some fruits, and cold drinks. It was almost like a long holiday — nothing to complain about,” the 28-year-old recalled.

“Now, we are back to working for our three meals per day,” Anwar said with a laugh.

Naif is best known as a go-to place for affordable trading equipment, electronics, gadgets, textiles, furniture, and much more. Hundreds of big and small stores are stacked against each other, and they are always bustling with people rushing in and out.

When Covid struck, Naif life turned on a dime. All of a sudden, streets were empty — except for the frontline heroes who worked hard to extend all assistance. Social groups provided residents with free food packages and boxes of groceries every day.

Social worker Naseer Vatanapally, who actively supported relief and testing operations in the district, recalled: “Come to think of it, that time was unimaginable. We had no idea what we were up against. Even medical experts were still learning about the virus. There was no vaccine, and in places like Naif, social distancing is difficult.”

The key, he said, was to educate people. “I must say the Dubai Health Authority and the Dubai Police did an incredible job. We worked hand in hand with them. None of the officers slept during that time.”

Organisations, such as the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, donated thousands of packed boxes of food every week, said Vatanapally.

Junaid Khader, an electronics store proprietor and longtime resident of Naif, caught the virus during those days. “I am 54 years old, and mine was a symptomatic case. After testing positive, I was shifted to the Al Warsan facility.”

Now, Khader is fit, healthy, and vaccinated, but he remains extra careful. “I do not want to get sick again. I still feel like my immunity is weak. I am now more cautious. I keep my mask on at all times when I am at the shop.”

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