Dubai: "I've been waiting for over three hours. Do you know anyone here who can help me?"
It was ironic that the request came from an employee of the government department who called XPRESS from the Al Muhaisnah Medical Fitness Centre in Dubai recently. But the sense of frustration was understandable.
Like thousands of other residents who descend on the centre every day for a medical fitness screening, this employee too was there to complete the mandatory visa requirement for a housemaid.
Every two years, residents are tested for infectious diseases like HIV, HBV, TB and syphilis. But many claim inadequate facilities, tardy processing and lack of information about the fitness centres have made the process an ordeal. Official statistics reveal that around 700,000 people underwent the mandatory tests in Dubai last year.
Yet, DHA's infrastructure, with just 15 centres for screening, has not kept pace. What's more, not all centres entertain all categories of people. The result: a large chunk of those employed make do with just two centres at Al Muhaisnah and Al Satwa, where serpentine queues and inordinate delays have become the norm.
Dubai's population has already crossed the 1.8 million mark. The Dubai Statistics Centre estimated that more than 10,000 new residents land in Dubai every month. And with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expecting the UAE economy to rise by six per cent in 2012, the number of people coming to Dubai will only swell. This will further strain the existing infrastructure.
Maisa Al Bustani, Director of Medical Fitness at DHA, admits the numbers are rising but finds nothing amiss in the system.
"We cannot deny that we have many clients. But the screening process is smooth and systematic. We have now limited the number of people being screened at Satwa to 600-700 per day," she said.
But has this helped?
The Satwa centre opens at 7am, but the queue begins to build up from the wee hours, sometimes extending to the nearby mosque.
Last week, when XPRESS visited the centre at around 10.30am, only two of the five counters issuing tokens were open.
Sources said the slowdown was deliberate as the staff needed more time to clear the huge backlog in the X-ray and laboratory rooms.
"We're still at ticket No 350," said Mark Onglao, a Filipino resident who came in at 7.30am, his token number 455 a long way from being called even three hours later. The two small halls inside were packed to capacity and Indian Raji Thomas with token number 495 was one of many standing outside in the scorching sun.
"This is too much. It's high time they do something to speed up the process," said a middle-aged woman while taking a bottle of cold water from a vending machine outside.
The Muhaisnah centre, which has larger premises and works 24 hours, can accommodate over 4,000 people a day.
During a visit by XPRESS, a pre-recorded voice on the queue system was calling token number 489 at 10.30am to proceed to counter 3 for registration. A busload of labourers walked in, but the 300-plus seats in front of the counters were all occupied.
There were scores of others just standing, waiting for their turn.
Dambar Gurung, a food warehouse worker, arrived at the centre at 10.30am for stool and blood tests. "The test for us is more extensive as we handle food," said the 29-year-old Nepalese. "I wish it took less time," he said into his third hour of waiting.
Shaji, 31, who works for a car showroom, said: "The place was packed when I came at around 8.30am." Since he was applying only for residency renewal, he was allowed to skip the X-ray test.
But not Edison and Ryan, part of a fresh batch of 20 Filipinos recruited by Enoc. They had been waiting for their company's public relations staff. "It's just something that we have to do… and will wait for an entire day if we have to."
Much of the scramble is being blamed on the public itself. Maisa said a large number of people coming to Satwa are directed to other centres. "But there are some difficult clients who prefer to wait here. We would like them to be more cooperative," she said.
"We have increased the number of clients from 30 to 50 per day at centres like Al Mankhool, Al Bada'a, Al Twar and Al Khawaneej, which are specified for housemaids. Very soon, labourers will be directed to receive the service from Al Quoz rather than Al Satwa which will be limited to other groups of clients."
She said the middle class would have some "privacy" when a new centre comes up at Al Karama by the year-end. "Two more centres are being planned," she added.
But residents rue lack of information about the various centres and the services they offer. D. Manghnani, an Indian businessman who came to the Al Mankhool Medical Fitness Centre for a medical test for himself and his mother, said, "It was only after coming here that I found they do the tests only for students and dependents. While I could get my mother's test done here, I was told to go to Muhaisnah, Satwa or Al Baraha Hospital for my tests."
Maher Mohammad Idrees, a public relations officer at a private yacht company in Al Quoz, said centres like Al Mankhool, Al Bada'a, Al Twar, Al Lusaili and Al Khawaneej conduct tests only for some categories like housewives, students, drivers and housemaids.
DHA's website, however, is silent on housewives, students and drivers. All it says is that ‘housemaids from catchment area' can avail of the facility. Many centres like Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA), Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority, Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and Emirates airline entertain only designated employees attached to them.
The lack of clarity about available packages and prices is also a cause of concern. While the regular package costs Dh260, those wishing to get their reports earlier can avail of special packages at Dh470 within 24 hours and Dh370 in 48 hours. "But this does not bring down the waiting time," said an official source.
For minimal waiting time, VIPs, executives and professionals are advised to go to Al Safa and Knowledge Village where the process takes a few minutes. But the question is how many can afford them at the steep fee of Dh690 (plus Dh50 for typing) per head? Moreover, not everyone is accepted at these centres. For example, those from Jebel Ali and Tecom cannot get their tests done at Al Safa. "Why can't there be more centres for the general public?" asked one resident.