100 days of COVID-19: How a virus stopped the world

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Aden - Yasmin Abdel Azim - A transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient. Image Credit: Reuters

Look at you. Look around you. Look at the world. Everything has more or less come to a standstill. Only essential services are functioning. We are forced to stay indoors. This isn’t the world we live in. This isn’t how we were. This isn’t how we want to be.

What happened? Hundred days ago, a microbe came into our world. It sickened some of us. It replicated so fast that it raced into our lives from Wuhan in China in a matter of weeks. That’s the price of living in an interconnected world.

The global village is a creation of our times. Technology is its enabler. It’s a reminder of the capabilities of humans and their advancements in science. Time and distance no longer matter. Our lives are interlinked.

Marshall McLuhan was right. The Canadian communications theorist was right about the globalised community. “The medium is the message,” he had said, about the technologies that connect the world.

The coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are genetically similar. Yet we don’t have a cure.

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Science and technology are driving our lives. We have a virtual world, too: a world where lightning-fast communications put our lives on a highway. We share knowledge with ease. Trading is round the clock, making the world a single market. That’s the power of technology.

The thirst for scientific knowledge spurred us to explore the universe. Science gave us the technology to make newer weapons of war too. Drones and cruise missiles have changed military strategies and battlefields. Nuclear war was a major threat.

The biggest threat to humans in modern times didn’t come riding atomic weapons. It came in the form of a germ: the new coronavirus. SARS-CoV2 spawned a pandemic, killing thousands. And it threatens to kill many more.

Much of the deaths have been in the developed world. Countries with excellent healthcare facilities and highly trained medical professionals struggled to cope with the rising tide of infections. China, Italy, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom: these are places where medical research flourishes, bringing us newer therapies.

Some of those treatment methods have been revolutionary. Cancer and AIDS are not death warrants anymore. Early detection helps cure most cancers. Medicine has never been better.

So why can’t we eliminate a virus: a microscopic organism that has sparked the biggest medical crisis in recent history? It makes a mockery of our scientific advancements.

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A lab technician manufactures kits for COVID-19 virus testing at a Co-Diagnostics Inc. facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, US, on March 24, 2020. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Coronaviruses are not new to us. One of them gives humans the common cold. The coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are genetically similar. Yet we don’t have a cure.

It is difficult to predict a new disease or the arrival of a new pathogen. But the coronavirus has been studied during the time of SARS and MERS. There was a lot of research too. All of them were discontinued when the threats faded.

Well, that’s how Big Pharma works. Profits matter the most. Research into therapies is dependent on profitability. If a drug or vaccine is not likely to fetch significant revenues, why will private pharmaceutical companies pour funds into research to develop it? These companies always prioritise vaccines and medicines that assure them profits.

Continuing the research even after the current pandemic ends will help prevent future outbreaks, says Karla Satchell, professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois.

Consider the discontinued research into SARS and MERS. If that work had resulted in effective drugs, we might have a treatment for COVID-19 today, Satchell says. The work on SARS-CoV-2 could be useful in the event of future outbreaks, even if the pathogens causing them are slightly different.

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Pharmaceutical firms do not see it that way. For them, there should be a return on investments. Private companies fund a good majority of clinical trials because they know they are closer to getting a drug into the market. A new drug in the market will raise their stock.

Countries do fund research. It’s the taxpayers’ money that helps develop treatments and drugs. But that’s not enough. Governments should be involved in a much bigger way. More money and better facilities are required.

Look at our popular culture. Who rakes in the big bucks? Actors, singers, footballers, models: celebrities all. Can they help in a crisis like this? So we got our priorities wrong. Didn’t we?

How many of us know how our scientists and researchers eke out a living? Some are lucky. Lucky enough to be funded by big corporations and foundations. But most of them spend their lifetime in university laboratories, heavily dependent on government grants to keep their research alive. Their work has to be sustained. Or else, we will see a repeat of COVID-19 pandemic.

Now we know that a germ can bring the mighty world to its knees in 100 days. Let’s not give the microbes another chance.

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Municipality workers disinfect Nasiriya area in Sharjah on March 2020, to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Al Khaleej Today

How the UAE fought to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Huda Tabrez, Senior News Editor

These are some of the steps taken by the UAE so far in its fight against COVID-19:

February 26: the UAE's Minister of Health announced the setting up of a medical facility in Abu Dhabi, dedicated to coronavirus patients.

March 3: It was announced that schools would be closed early for spring break and students would move to distance learning after schools reopened, with campuses remaining closed.

March 5: Dr Manal Taryam from DHA said thermal screening was being conducted at airports to detect any cases of COVID-19.

March 7: Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) issued advisories related to social distancing in public places and at the workplace.

March 12: Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum asked government employees to start working from home. Over several days, UAE authorities across emirates announced the closure of public places like parks, beaches, zoos, nighclubs and cinemas.

March13: MOHAP asked senior citizens and residents to stay indoors.

March 14: Abu Dhabi closed all major tourist destinations like Louvre Abu Dhabi, Ferrari World and Yas WaterWorld.

March 15: The UAE temporarily suspended issuance of all visas except for visa on arrival for a few nationalities and diplomatic visas. The decision was effective from March 17.

March 16: Abu Dhabi announced that all pharmacies would be providing home delivery services.

March 16: Dubai announced that weddings and parties should not be held until further notice.

March 16: UAE's attorney general said that anyone spreading rumours or misinformation on the coronavirus would face harsh penalties and jail.

March 16: Dubai issued an advisory to restaurants and food outlets on special preventative steps they needed to take including separating tables to ensure social distancing, stepping up hygiene measures, etc.

March 16: Prayers at all places of worship were suspended across the UAE.

March 17: UAE's authorities asked all Emiratis abroad to return to the UAE.

March 18: UAE's attorney general said that anyone coming back to the UAE had to self-quarantine for 14 days.

March 19: UAE authorities said that people could renew their registration online from March 22.  Entry for all valid visa holders was halted.

March 22: Sharjah said that it would waive the rent for tenants of Haraj and Jubail markets. All shops within these markets would be exempted from paying rent for three months.

March 23: It was announced that only three people per car were allowed.

All inbound and outbound flights were suspended. Restaurants were told to stop serving food on their premises and offer food delivery services only.

Malls in UAE were closed, along with other commercial establishments. Supermarkets, groceries and pharmacies would remain open.

March 23: Abu Dhabi Judicial Department halted all rental property eviction cases currently under way, along with executive procedures like imprisonment, blocking of bank accounts, seizure of vehicles, stocks and assets for a period of two months.

In a series of announcements, governments in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah announced relief for people who may struggle with rental and banking payments.

March 25: Dubai temporarily suspended eviction and imprisonment judgements related to residential and commercial facilities, and rental cases in March and April.

Abu Dhabi banks announced 17 initiatives to ease the burden on customers.

Dubai Economy directed all private businesses operating in the emirate to implement remote working systems for 80 per cent of their employees up till April 9, 2020. Pharmacies, cooperative societies, grocery stores and supermarkets were excluded.

Dubai Executive Council issued circular to government entities to implement 100 per cent remote work system as of Sunday, March 29, 2020. Abu Dhabi and Sharjah governments had also announced that their remote work pilot programmes would begin, with many employees working from home.

March 31: DHA announced that all elective surgeries would be put on hold. Thermal screening at shopping malls was started

March 26: A three-day National Sterilisation Drive was announced. This was extended further, with Dubai announcing an extended 24-hour disinfection drive on April 4.

Abu Dhabi schools offered discounts on school fees to parents after Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), directed them to offer reprieves for parents faced with professional disruptions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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A girl using mask for protection at Dubai Mall on 23 FEB 2020 photo; Atiq Ur Rehman /Al Khaleej Today

How the UAE rose to the virus challenge

Ashley Hammond, UAE Editor

The UAE announced its first case of coronavirus on January 29 when a 73-year-old woman entered the country on holiday with her family from Wuhan. The family of four including a 38-year-old man, his 36-year-old wife and their 10-year-old child arrived in the UAE on January 16 before the grandmother came down with flu-like symptoms on January 23.

In the 71 days to have followed this number has risen to 2,659 cases, 239 recoveries and 12 deaths.

Along the way, some of the major developments were on February 9 when the same Chinese grandmother Liu Yujia became the first person in the UAE to recover.

Two Italian technicians visiting the country to participate in the UAE Tour cycling race tested positive on February 28 resulting not only in the cancellation of the tour but also the lockdown of two hotels in Yas Marina where media and cycling participants were staying.

The UAE reported its first deaths on March 21: a 78-year-old Arab man who had travelled from Europe and a 59-year-old Asian man who was suffering from chronic diseases.

On March 23 the government ordered the closure of malls and restaurants and suspended flights for a renewable period of two weeks.

March 26 saw the introduction of a sterilisation (disinfection) programme where residents were asked to stay indoors between 8pm and 6am. This was increased to a 24-hour sterilisation programme from April 4.

Emirates restarted flights to six destinations, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels and Zurich, on April 6 and 7 with four flights a week for London, and three for the other destinations. All these flights are one-way however, with a suspension of visas, both on arrival and residency, enforced since March 19.

The UAE Central Bank in Abu Dhabi
The Central Bank of UAE Image Credit: Al Khaleej Today Archives

UAE takes action to protect the economy 

Babu Das Augustine, Business Editor

The UAE has been quick to initiate fiscal and monetary policies, extraordinary capital and liquidity support to the banking sector to weather the potential adverse impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

In February, Dubai announced a Dh1.5 billion stimulus package, and that was followed by a Dh100 billion package from the Central Bank of UAE to boost liquidity in the banking system.

In recent weeks the central bank has expanded its Targeted Economic Support Scheme to Dh260 billion. That includes Dh50 billion capital buffer relief, Dh50 billion zero-cost funding support to banks, Dh95 billion liquidity buffer relief, and Dh61 billion reduction-of-cash-reserves requirements.

For banks in the TESS programme, the central bank has extended the capital buffer relief (Dh50 billion in value) till December next year. The banks and finance companies in the programme get zero-cost funding facility (Dh50 billion in value) against collateral until December 31. Banks will also be able to use a third of their current regulatory liquidity buffers.

All components of the programme are emergency measures are aimed at helping banks to offer relief to their individual and business customers in terms of rescheduling of loan repayments, waiver of fees and charges and in some cases restructuring of loans.

The regulatory relief measures such as loan restructuring and deferrals will also help banks to reduce the chances of a potential spike in non-performing loans (NPLs). This, in turn, will reduce the need for provisions against loan impairments and save banks from a sudden potential impact on profitability.

Monetary policy

The UAE and other GCC central banks in general track the US interest rates as all except Kuwait have their currencies pegged to the dollar. Although Kuwaiti dinar is pegged to a basket of currencies, the dollar dominates the currency basket with about 80 per cent weightage.

The UAE central bank in two tranches cut lending rates last month following the Fed’s rate cut lead. On March 4, the central bank of lowered interest rates applied to the issuance of its Certificates of Deposits (reverse repo) and repo rate (rate applicable to borrowing short-term liquidity from the central bank against Certificates of Deposits) also was decreased by 50 basis points. On March 16, the central bank trimmed its interest rate on one-week certificates of deposit by 75 basis points.

Although the UAE does not have much of monetary policy flexibility due to its currency’s peg to the dollar, the central bank was quick to cut rates to support the economy in terms of reduced funding costs for banks and businesses.

Fiscal policy measures

All the emirates have announced support programmes in terms of reduced government fees, fines, rent and lease reliefs to businesses and individuals. Governments at both federal and individual emirates-level have shown a commitment to support the economy in these difficult times.

Proactive approach keeps UAE toll down

The UAE efforts to initiate steps swiftly to reduce the spread of the coronavirus have helped keep the casualties down. While many developed countries like the US and the UK were slow to react to the virus, the UAE rolled out steps steadily without spreading panic. Stimulus packages gave the economy and the financial system the much needed support.

An early spring break to schools was followed by several other measures to encourage social distancing. Stimulus packages gave the economy and the financial system the much needed support. Testing was ramped up and awareness campaigns on hygiene were launched.

The results were there to see. There are several cases every day, but the numbers are low. There has been no big jump. Which means the UAE’s efforts to contain the virus is working.

The medical fraternity in the country deserves a big salute, so also the security agencies. The people in the country — citizens and residents — are in your debt.

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