Dubai Municipality conducts the National Disinfection Program on Jumeirah Road on March 27, 2020. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: This time last year, when UAE residents stayed home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, an army of workers were out in the field every night, spraying disinfectants to sanitise streets and lanes to battle COVID-19.

A year later, a top Dubai Municipality official has recounted how the frontline warriors toiled night after night to spray around 6.5 million litres of disinfectants to sanitise over 1,265 sites, while officials tackled the challenges of mobilising the massive resources needed for the mission and allaying fears of the workers who embarked on the never-before experience during the pandemic.

Dr Naseem Mohammed Rafee

In an exclusive interview to Gulf News, Dr Naseem Mohammed Rafee, director of Health and Safety Department and head of Emergencies, Crisis and Disaster Management Team at Dubai Municipality (DM) narrated how Dubai spearheaded the drive days before the national sterilisation campaign began on March 26, 2020. “DM has been the focal point via spearheading the national sterilisation programme in Dubai, where the disinfection programme started earlier on March 20, 2020,” the Emirati official said.

As the civic authority, Dr Naseem said, one of the main responsibilities of DM is ensuring and maintaining the health and safety of the community. “This got multiplied in accordance with the directives of the wise leadership to provide the highest levels of prevention and protection when the whole world was at risk of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus to ensure the safety of citizens, residents and visitors.”

Preparing for the battle

The municipality took all precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of the community members by activating the emergency preparedness and response plan to achieve the strategic objectives in various fields to the upmost level. The plan included establishments, activities and individuals.

“DM was keen to provide effective, rapid, and up-to-date communication channels with them to ensure increasing their awareness levels toward precautionary measures in different aspects,” said Dr Naseem.

Forming Crisis Cell

DM leadership ensured mobilisation of efforts to work as one team during the crisis reflecting the agile and team-working culture throughout the organisation, she recollected. “DM top management formed a specialised committee named ‘COVID-19 Crisis Cell’ to monitor and handle all pandemic-related issues with an objective of collaborating various departments’ efforts as one team.”

Through the COVID-19 Crisis cell, various specialised teams were formed to ensure the implementation of the approved action plans. “Effective and daily coordination of the Crisis Cell was done with the participation of the senior leadership in DM interacting with local and federal government in-charge entities to discuss the actions and recommendations related to the pandemic and the preparation of protocols for economic, service and industrial activities in the emirate.”

Massive sterilisation campaign

The deadly virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, had only affected 140 people in the UAE by March 20. But, the municipality decided to start cleaning up and sanitise the densely populated streets, major roads as well as the interior lanes in a major bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

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Drones being used as part of the national sterilisation campaign. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The civic body announced a 11-day disinfection drive and asked residents to keep off the streets during the campaign that covered nearly 100 areas and neighbourhoods across Dubai. Areas such as Naif and Al Rigga, which had already started seeing clusters of infection, were included in the 11 locations targeted in the first day of the campaign.

Dawood Al Hajri, director general of Dubai Municipality, Dr Naseem and other top officials were on site to supervise the campaign at various locations.

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Dawood Al Hajri, director general of Dubai Municipality, Dr Naseem and other top officials on site to supervise the campaign at various locations. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Equipment, manpower, materials

The equipment, machinery and tools provided for the campaign ranged from vehicles, tankers and spraying machines, said Dr Naseem.

In the first phase, Dubai Municipality mobilised its efforts to optimise sterilisation operations with the latest specialised equipment and capabilities including six haze spray vehicles (ULV), 34 pressure water spray vehicles, six vehicles used in street cleaning, 72 manual pressure sprayers, and a large number of spray machines and container cleaning equipment. “The whole campaign included as many as 146 different vehicles and equipment and saw the participation of 728 of our trained and specialised human resources in various locations.”

The use of the latest devices and techniques was in accordance with the best international practices in this regard, the official pointed out. The equipment used for spraying and disinfection, included spraying devices that compress disinfection fluid into small particles, portable sprayers using hydraulic power, in addition to other types of spray and fumigation machines.

Some of the equipment were hand-held, some were mounted on vehicles. In a first, DM also used disinfecting machinery through drones to reach narrow or difficult places to access.

The total volume of the disinfecting materials used in the sterilisation programme by the municipality stood at a whopping 6,464,800 litres of diluted sterilises, revealed Dr Naseem.

Areas, sites covered

She said the municipality adopted a risk-based approach to sterilise all areas.

On June 24, 2020, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced the completion of the National Disinfection Programme with immediate effect.

When the campaign ended, DM had completed the sterilisation of a total of 1,266 sites. “We were sterilising 226 areas and re-sterilising 1,040 areas for the second and third time daily. This was based on the frequency determined in their risks analysis.”

In addition to this, the disinfection teams sanitised all sites and buildings of Dubai Municipality, mosques, public spaces, schools and other sites that belong to various government entities, the official explained.

Challenges tackled

One of the challenges that officials faced during the implementation of the programme was the fear that some workers would be infected and the impact on their health and safety as well as on the continuity of the disinfection programme, revealed Dr Naseem.

“We overcame this challenge by providing personal protective tools and specialised equipment to workers, ensuring that they are constantly available. We trained our workforce on how to wear, remove and safely dispose of personal protective equipment [PPE] in an appropriate manner to avoid any cross contamination.”

Another challenge faced was in terms of difficulties to disinfect some areas that cannot be reached via normal vehicles. “We provided some new and innovative solutions such as drones and motorbikes which have been developed to be used for disinfection purposes in Dubai Municipality, to overcome that challenge.”

How safety was ensured

There were also concerns about the use of large volumes of disinfectants.

However, DM confirmed that the materials used in the disinfection and sterilisation operations that were completely safe in spite of being products that contain chemical components in general. “These materials are dealt with by specialised experts and they use them with calculated and accurate ratios as per globally-approved measurements for the ratio of concentration of active substances, while avoiding high levels of concentration that may cause side effects on human health.”

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Dubai disinfection Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

The sterilisation operations were carried out by specialised teams, who were highly trained and aware of how to deal with these materials, said Dr Naseem. “The teams complied with the requirements and standards approved by the municipality that are compatible with the international standards in force in this field, taking into account careful application of all safety guidelines, product use methods, dilution and mixing ratios, and use of PPEs to ensure the safe use of the products.”

The official revealed that DM performs accredited laboratory tests to ensure the safety of such products and their compliance with approved specifications. “Also, an efficacy test is requested when needed as part of the evaluation and registration procedures to ensure the impact of the product against all types of germs declared in the product label.”

Checking safety

DM has developed a list of approved biocides intended for professional use in the business sector.

The sterilisation operations were carried out by specialised teams. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News Archives

The approved retail products can be checked by scanning the bar code of the product or searching by its name using the ‘Montaji’ app developed by DM. “All products used for disinfection and sterilisation in the Emirate of Dubai were evaluated and registered in the ‘Montaji’ system and they contained the same active substances mentioned in the lists approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centre for Antibacterial Chemicals (CBC) and those are the same materials recommended by the World Health Organisation as active ingredients during sterilisation processes,” Dr Naseem explained.

Unforgettable moments

The community’s support for the national sterilisation programme that Dubai municipality was carrying out during the first periods of response to the pandemic was one of the special memories that will remain etched in the minds of Dr Naseem and her team.

Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News Archives

“People greeted the staff and applauded them through the balconies of various buildings, apart from sending messages of thanks and appreciation that were disseminated by the public through various social media channels. Those were really special moments,” the official said, expressing gratitude to the workers who did a fantastic job and the residents who cooperated with their mission.

Safety mission continues

However, the battle against the deadly coronavirus that plagued the world in the coming months did not stop with just the sterilisation of streets and roads.

Dubai Municipality developed various guidelines to ensure health and safety across all sectors and launched intensive inspection campaigns to ensure the compliance by establishments towards the precautionary measures against COVID-19. “The inspection control bodies from various departments at Dubai Municipality are continuously carrying out intensive inspection campaigns to ensure full compliance by all establishments. A total of 637,414 inspection visits were performed in Dubai in 2020 to ensure this compliance,” said Dr Naseem.

The civic body has also been regularly updating the public with the action taken against the violators such as closure of commercial establishments and fines and warnings as a deterrent.