I live in the financial centre of Dubai. A built-up, dense urban grid of imposing skyscrapers, government offices and a half-constructed Museum of the Future. The sidewalks usually beat to the rhythm of white- and blue-collar workers’ burnished brogues and battered boots.
But the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the authorities have affected an eerie stillness in the desert metropolis that has not known calm since the ‘70s.
Now, it’s a ghost town. Vast snaking highways, wandering backroads and carparks all devoid of their payloads. Billboards promote new malls, residential compounds and office towers that will now open to the new normal of cratered demand, with no shoppers or tenants about to fill them.
I make the rounds along Al Mustaqbal Street. My walk is punctuated by the squawking of nearby peacocks from the royal palatial grounds. I stop to make conversation with security guards at a safe distance, in exchange for some hand sanitiser (I haven’t touched any surfaces, but you never know).
Continuing through to the Dubai World Trade Centre compound of empty car parks and more bored security guards, I keep an eye out for the scuttering skinny stray cats who live in this inhospitable environment. They too look perplexed about the lack of human activity, those capricious beings that sometimes take pity and feed them a scrap.
Dubai World Trade Centre has been turned into a 3,000-bed field hospital and I am cautioned by security guards not to walk too close to the building or I might catch it.
It has so dramatically changed our expectations for 2020, and it is still too early to predict what the new normal will look like. I wonder about the impact on interpersonal relationships, connection and human intimacy; a new era of sophisticated surveillance powered by technology or snitches tsk-tsking at those who cough, sneeze, sniffle or (God forbid) step out of their homes without a mask on; whether my mental health can tolerate more months of telework, job security, or if I should visit the dentist.
On the other hand, this unruly pandemic has spawned home vegetable gardens, sourdough breadmaking, empathy and respect for essential workers, quality time with the family – if even only virtually. More importantly, it has highlighted gaps in governance and healthcare systems, weaknesses in global supply chains, the lack of protection for the vulnerable and marginalised. And perhaps most starkly, it has trained a blinding spotlight on humankind’s impact on the environment and our ecosystems.
But we knew all this before it arrived. So why has it taken this sudden jolt for us to re-evaluate our priorities?