People throng the Jumeirah public beach in Dubai after restrictions were eased. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

COVID-19 struck fear in our hearts. There’s no doubt about it. We retreated to our homes when the disease spread by the new coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. We worked from home when much of the world went into lockdowns. In the UAE, the national disinfection programme kept us indoors.

Working from home felt weird. But fear cancelled out every discomfort. Staying alive, and staying out of harm’s way meant keeping out the virus. Cloistered, it may have been, but we felt safe indoors.

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Three months of confinement in our homes brought attendant problems: longer work hours, higher stress levels and worries over e-learning. Now with most facilities open for business, we have trooped back to the office.

The return to office hasn’t been easy. The virus continued to rage around the world, infecting more people. But in the UAE, the cases have dwindled signifying that the situation is under control.

Despite that, the thought of resuming work from office had sent shivers down our spines. What if a colleague had the virus? Is it safe to use public transport? Will going to office increase my chances of catching the virus? Questions, there are aplenty.

We asked some of them to our colleagues. How did they overcome the fear factor to resume work, go to the gym, walk in the park, have a meal at a restaurant and so on? Here’s what they said:

I've diabetes, and I live in fear

Jay Hilotin, Senior Assistant Editor

In the early days of the pandemic, an uncle died at age 53. His body was cremated the same day he died.

Then an aunt in her mid-60s also died; her body was cremated the same day. They were both immuno-compromised. My folks feared our dear departed had contracted COVID-19. No more traditional burial rites or long goodbyes.

Am I scared of this virus? Yes. It’s still killing people. Studies show the COVID-19 infection triggers a double-whammy for people with diabetes, due to an altered immune system.

A data-mining study on 1.3 million COVID-19 cases kicked up a grim result for me: the rates of hospitalisations were 6 times higher, and death rates were 12 times more among COVID-19 patients with underlying conditions (compared with those without). The deadliest of those conditions: diabetes, heart disease and chronic lung disease.

I take diabetes medication. And with type-A blood, I reckon COVID-19 would hit me hard, if I somehow contract it (people with type A blood tend to have severe cases upon contracting the virus, one study shows).

But there are different levels of fear, I realised.

I fear death. I live far away from loved ones and worry about not being able to see them again. I fret about being isolated, quarantined.

Should I be too scared to let this pandemic ruin my life? No, not really.

I’ve been out to the malls and on Dubai’s beautiful Jumeirah beach a few times. Went out on late-night walks around Zabeel Park.

I also kept my nose to the grindstone. What boosts my confidence is our shared humanity. Scientists have discovered therapies against COVID-19 — stem cell, convalescent plasma, remdesivir, dexamethasone. Then, of course, there’s a whole army of vaccine researchers doing their work.

Thousands of people were given experimental COVID shots, not one of them died. Most jabs triggered the same or greater amount of killer T-cells against COVID-19, compared to levels in convalescents. I get it: extensive tests must be done to ensure the safety and efficacy of these new shots. But in my mind, these vaccines are already working.

Darkness breeds fear. But science has shed light on this pandemic. The WHO experts review hundreds of studies from researchers around the world each day. Most studies are on COVID. The world certainly knows so much more about it today (July 23, 2020) than on January 1, 2020.

One thing I know for sure: This virus does not have a brain and a heart. Both my uncle and aunt tested negative for COVID. The results came out after they were cremated. Darkness has its way of reminding you of the light you had on all those other days.

Dining in Dubai
Diners at Student Biryani Restaurant in Karama, Dubai on June 30, 2020. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Short-circuiting the switch for survival

Anupa Kurian-Murshed, Senior Digital Content Planning Editor

Fear is a strange thing. Fundamental to our existence, it is a factor for the supposed continuance of the species, coded into our DNA. But, we have evolved a switch that overrides this ancient instinct.

Humans have a biochemical and emotional response to fear.

Adrenaline pumps through, the heart rate goes up, beads of perspiration appear — biochemical.

A sense of thrill or a sense of panic, anger or dread — emotional, but individual specific. You will either seek it out or hide from it. Adventure sports is a clear example of this, where an emotional reaction has superseded the instinct for survival.

COVID-19 drove a fight and flight fear response across the planet. Social isolation and quarantine were the defence line. But, then, as months passed and the agonising wait for vaccines and cures continued, with no true respite in sight, people started venturing out. Around this time global economies began a nosedive.

As people returned to the open, the infection numbers went up. But, that failed to deter, as it once did. The very same who would stay hours cocooned within their homes, continued to brave the outside.

So, what changed enough to drive people to step over their survival instinct, because COVID-19 is still a monster?

Well, there is a system in phobia treatments called Systematic Desensitisation, wherein you go through a series of exposure situations. Initially it is limited to conversations, till you reach a point wherein you are in a live scenario. Coping mechanisms are employed, which therapists would help you with. What if, in this case, that coping mechanism was the question of economic survival? You either faced the prospect of COVID-19 or died hungry.

Then you have the Flooding Technique, which is based on the premise that fear is a learned behaviour, which we have to unlearn by repeatedly doing what we fear, within the safety of a controlled environment. And this continues to the point where we realise that we are okay despite being exposed to our fears.

In the case of COVID-19, it could be the understanding that the best way to protect oneself is by wearing a mask, gloves, staying clean and washing hands often. Humanity found its safe place. So we are ready to face our fears and get on with living.

And, finally, there’s just acceptance of the need to move on, as life and bills begin to crowd in.

Are these the reasons why people seemed to have overcome the fear factor? Could be, but let me tell you about myself.

On a personal level, was I ever too afraid? No, but there’s a reason for that. Although, I hasten to add, I feared and continue to fear for the safety of my loved ones.

You see, fortunately or unfortunately, I spent my early youth within the confines of a lab studying biochemistry and immunology. Our days were filled with educators who told you about deadly viruses with a twinkle in their eye, about the fact that they are invisible aliens and the only way to annihilate them was intense alcohol and heat-based sterilisation, which ended between the flames of Bunsen burners. All else just inhibited, did not destroy these demons capable of manipulating your cells.

From the rusty confines of those forgotten years, I finally dusted out the education and knowledge to protect my family and me. Information patterned my logic.

Which brings me to what I think is the fundamental problem of this entire pandemic — a gross lack of knowledge that drives mass understanding.

The World Health Organisation has been farcical — they dithered and waffled, till there was no turning back. The least they could have done was request all governments to get people to wear masks and wash their hands unconditionally — a basic action, a fail-safe measure. But, they failed to take cumulative action, they failed to inform. Not enough number of people know the true impact of COViD-19 – asymptomatic or symptomatic, doesn’t matter. The damage is real.

But, this ignorance is what I really think has made it easy for many to go back out, because it has short-circuited the switch for survival.

Paramedics cheer as the last COVID-19 patients are discharged from Dubai Parks & Resorts Field Hospital on July 13, 2020. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

An unwelcome visitor lurking in the shadows

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

For many weeks we sat at home, hoping that the pandemic that was ravaging the populations around the world would not make an entry into our house. After all, we were told by top scientists and doctors that it was best not to go out unless there was an emergency. So we sanitised the currency notes, cleaned the water bottles and disinfected the house.

And then it happened.

Two relatives were admitted to hospital with COVID-19 and were hooked on to the ventilator almost immediately. One fought till the end but eventually succumbed to the virus, and the other made a miraculous recovery. Many other close friends fought the illness either from home or hospital. We watched and prayed.

When the pandemic was spreading fast, the real fear was of isolating oneself from the family in case of infection. Over the weeks, the decline in coronavirus cases in the country brought back a sense of relief and confidence.

And so, two weeks ago, when my son said that he wanted to go to the mall, we thought we would give it a shot. When we walked into City Centre Mirdif in the first week of July, it was the first time in 2020 that we were going to a large mall. It was a Sunday afternoon, and most of the covered parking areas were full. Had it not been for the masks and the social distancing, I wouldn’t be able to tell if we were living in the midst of a pandemic that had infected more than 15 million people worldwide.

Was I among the few who dreaded the coronavirus?

I realised that the virus was not perceived as a threat any more. It was being seen as an unwelcome visitor lurking in the shadows that could be kept at bay, or one that would leave home once it’s time was up.

Fearing the virus was not an option anymore. We had to get on with life, and the activity at the mall was a good example.

But to say that we have completely overcome the fear factor would be foolhardy, making us lower our guard and allow the virus to make inroads again.

Every time I tell myself that I am not worried about the virus anymore, I ask the question: If wearing a mask is an option, would I walk around without one?

The answer at present at least is a resounding ‘NO’.

Child at play
A child gears up to play at the Magic Planet in Sharjah City Centre after the restrictions have been eased, on July 2, 2020. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Behavioural fatigue pushed me outdoors

Tabitha Barda, Baby and Child Editor

For me it comes down to two words: Behavioural fatigue. As much as this concept came under fire when it was used by the British government as the reason for delaying lockdown (before they changed tactics entirely) the concept itself makes perfect sense to me. After a certain amount of time, people just tire of having their lifestyles so restricted. It’s why we all have so much trouble sustaining a diet or an exercise regime in the long term; unless it’s something you enjoy, behavioural fatigue sets in and you just can’t keep it up any more.

But there’s another very good reason why the fear factor may have reduced for many: places literally are just safer now. With face masks, sanitisation, hand washing and social distancing now fully implemented, it is a lot safer than it used to be in public areas. We’ve all moved on from eyeballing each other suspiciously over the gauze of medical masks, to feeling quite at home in our fabric face coverings.

It’s already second nature to me now to press the lift button with my elbow and to avoid touching door handles - on reflection, I’m amazed that I never used to think about all the germs that such frequented surfaces must harbour, COVID-19 or not. I’ve already internalised social distancing to such an extent that seeing people less than a metre apart on TV feels slightly obscene (for the record: The awkward Brit in me actually loves not having to decide whether a hug, or a kiss or a handshake is the most appropriate greeting for any given situation — much easier just to smile and say hello).

Behavioural science explains this once again: If it takes three months for behavioural fatigue to set in, luckily it only takes 66 days for a habit to form, and simple principles such as hand washing and frequent sanitisation have become fully engrained for most people, including my four and six year olds.

And there we get to the nub of it: my children. The real impetus for wanting to suppress any residual fear and get outside. Being on top of each other in an apartment with no garden takes its toll, and the weeks where our three children were not allowed outside at all were excruciating. By the time we were allowed out again, we shot straight to the first staycation we could. The kids (and us) inhaled the green grass and freedom like oxygen.

Family Park
A family enjoys a day out at the Umm Suqeim park and beach July 17, 2020. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Was I ever really scared of COVID-19?

Yousra Zaki, Senior Features Editor

I think I got lucky. The weekend before everyone was asked to stay home, I had friends coming in from Amsterdam. They had a tight party schedule. I usually get pretty tired by 11pm, but they were only here for five days, so we had to make the most out of their time.

We went clubbing on Thursday night, a party brunch on Friday morning, clubbing again on Friday night and an all-day pool party on Saturday. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t have been luckier, that my last weekend out, was my most socially fuelled.

There were corona fears then, but I tried not to get close to people and used hand sanitiser regularly throughout the nights. It was naïve of me to think I wouldn’t have gotten COVID-19, if someone there had it. Like I said, I was lucky I got to have a blast with my besties and still get out of it disease-free.

Little did I know that their five-day trip would get extended to five months.

I don’t know if I was ever really scared of COVID-19. I know it sounds like a terrible thing to say and usually people who say that are the ones who end up getting it. But working in the news, I was always armed with the facts. The “less than 2 per cent deaths” fact. The “It’s not an airborne virus” fact. And so on. I was always looking for excuses to get out of the house. Trip to the supermarket? I would volunteer. Trip to the pharmacy? Me, please! I was trying to change my days around as much as I could.

A small part of me would wake up and mindfully check my throat every day, just to make sure I had no symptoms. So I guess I am not totally heartless.

When Ramadan rolled around and the malls were opening, my parents and I decided to quietly go out for iftar. We went to a restaurant with an outdoor area facing the fountains. It may be difficult to imagine now, but the weather was great back in April, and we sat outside because we knew it was safer to be in the open air than in the way of any potential particles.

So while the city was empty, we slowly started going out. I didn’t really tell anyone that I had started leaving my house. For some reason I was nervous about people judging me for being out, especially for eating out, but my family, although super hygienic and kind of nervous about the virus, were still interested in experiencing something different.

I also slowly started going to the mall during the weekends to pass the time. I knew I wasn’t touching anything, touching my face or eating risky raw dishes. I showered whenever I got home and changed out of my ‘outside clothes’.

Then I started meeting my trainer at the park. It wasn’t so hot, especially with trees providing shade. We exercised with our masks on. At the time we had to keep them on, even when doing strenuous workouts. I never felt so alive.

As restrictions began to ease, so did my worries. I was more confident going to restaurants, going to work out and seeing more and more people. I went over to my friend’s house, and we spent the day by the pool.

For me it was human nature. My nature to seek change in my daily peripheral was the biggest motivator for me to “get over the fear” of COVID. I wasn’t particularly thinking of the economy. I was thinking of my natural human instincts. I could not just… not do anything.

The funny thing is, coronavirus was getting worse as restrictions were easing. Cases were at around 900 when things were open. But you could tell that the fears had decreased. Maybe we were just desensitised by the whole thing? Mall parking lots were filling up. Restaurants and hotels were getting fully booked. Things are back to normal. As long as I am following the rules, I feel safe.

The fear still lurks, but we have learnt to live with it

Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor

It was like completing a full circle when we walked into the office last week, after more than three months of working from home. We were fewer having decided to take turns — the ubiquitous masks were in place, so were the hand sanitisers — but most of us looked free of the jitters which accompanied us to work in March.

This was unthinkable little more than a month back, although the UAE had started turning a corner in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The deserted streets during the evenings for sanitisation drive became a distant memory, there were more cars on the roads as shops, parks and shopping malls reopened up for the public.

The world is still grappling with the virus — countries like the US, Brazil, India or Russia are breaking their records in terms of new cases or deaths.

Over the last three months, there were a few friends and colleagues who contracted the virus despite following the safety protocol, and that reminds us of the lingering threat. Their recovery and return to a healthy life tell me that the virus can be overcome — unless I get a raw deal.

We realise that we have to live with this one — for how long no one knows. If we were initially living in the hope that ‘these too shall pass,’ it slowly changed to something more realistic — it’s time we need to get on with our lives.

When the option of attending the office was offered, it seemed a logical conclusion. You cannot possibly be waiting for a vaccine before you step out and go to work — hence at this point we have to learn to live with it.

But how do you do it? It brings us back to the basics with which we approached the pandemic — the three rules of wearing a mask, washing of hands and maintaining social distancing. And of course, consume whatever you believe in will boost immunity — Vitamin C, turmeric or even the Ayurvedic prescription of ‘Ashwagandha.’

The psychological damage that the coronavirus has wreaked on us over the last four months has been immense — not to speak of its effect on the economy. Let’s learn to live with it!

Spooked out into stoicism!

Sanjib Kumar Das, Assistant Editor

The home delivery from the neighbourhood grocery is now coming right up to my apartment door. The front-seat ride on the taxis is no longer a no-no and the footfall at my neighbourhood shopping mall, one of the largest in Dubai, has shown an encouraging uptick over the last couple of weeks. ‘Voila! We seem to be limping back to normality,’ I tell myself.

These changes that I see in the world around have given me enough reason to believe that we have finally started to put life back on track and it’s a huge step forward from those days when I had little trust even on the air I breathed in.

So how has this turnaround been made possible?

For one, I firmly believe that since the coronavirus infection was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on March 12, a lot has been said and heard about living with the “new normal”. Secondly, even four months into the pandemic, we still do not have any definitive sign of a vaccine on the horizon. Thirdly, in these four months when the world went into lockdowns and quarantines, along with news of deaths, there’s been reports of job losses and financial distress all over the world. There’s hardly a country at the moment that can say that COVID-19 hasn’t had an impact on the way it conducts its businesses.

Given the enormous challenge and grim prognosis, and the fear of the unknown, humanity has been pushed to such an extent that we now probably have a fatalistic take on reality. ‘Life must go on’ is being uttered with such alacrity and stoicism — yes, the sheer dichotomy of it — that the fear factor is now a statutory warning in the fine print! It’s somewhat like watching a horror flick that spooks you so much that there is a numbing of senses, and you refuse to judge and question things on the screen, leaving it to the subconscious. It’s also raw survival instinct kicking in. We all know this virus can be so lethal, that stepping out and socialising can be so suicidal — but we also know that staying cocooned isn’t going to guarantee us two square meals a day, not for too long that is.

So do we have a choice really, other than sliding on that patch of cloth on your face and moving on?

I wasn’t afraid of going back to the office

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

How did you catch it? Almost everyone asked me this question. Most of them are aware of my obsessive hygiene practices. I even blogged about it. It borders on OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Yet, the coronavirus breached my defence. I still don’t know how and where I caught the virus.

I survived COVID-19 without any lingering effects. That was a couple of months back. It set me free. I ceased to be afraid. That didn’t prevent me from continuing to take precautions.

So when the call to return to office came, I was more than willing to oblige. For, I had missed the office badly. It used to be my oasis, where I did what I loved. Work from home was convenient, but home can never be an office. The ambience, the tension and above all, the banter were sorely missing. I couldn’t wait to return to the office.

By then, I had resumed my morning walks at the Al Majaz Waterfront, which is packed with fitness enthusiasts. I also had been visiting the malls on the weekends. In between, I used public transport: a feeder bus trip to a Metro station, followed by a ride to Union Square and later to Ggico station. The safety measures at the Metro stations are impressive.

The virus threat has not diminished, but countries have returned to normal operations. It makes business sense. With a recession upon us, a sputtering economy would only make matters worse. The pandemic has already dried up jobs, and a longer pause would mean more pain.

The world can’t be held hostage by a disease. Any disease. Even if it’s a pandemic. And given the low mortality rate of COVID-19, there’s no need to fear unless you have compromised immunity.

My immune system withstood the virus attack. So returning to work wasn’t an issue. At the office, I try and maintain social distancing. No handshakes, of course. A smile works very well. Even with the masks on. That’s judging from the reactions of friends and colleagues.

I know I would have some immunity, but I haven’t let the guard down. After all, reports of reinfections and short immunity spans are doing the rounds. No one knows for sure. These are uncharted territory, and I’m not willing to take any chances. Masks and gloves go with me always, social distancing and frequent handwashing have become a habit. Survival instinct, it may be. I’m fine with it.

It’s okay to be a bit scared. It will keep you safe.