Journal of the third month in lockdown

Should have been posted 10 days ago, but who is still counting the days now???

We have been staying inside for 3 months now, staying safe. Three months where we learned a lot about ourselves. We changed, like always when confronted to difficulties. I think we get better. We developed a new routine, a new normal, whatever that means. We created new links; we broke some old ones. We launched new ideas, we faced new projects which replaced some old ones. We still hope for a sweeter future, but we don’t have any clue what form it will take. 

“What??? You’re still inside???” – European person drinking a beer in a park, with 14 very close friends.

Well, the situation is weird in Abu Dhabi. This third month was a roller coaster of rules and emotions. Money game is tricky, and all the money in the world (even billions of petrol dollars) can’t buy you a virus-free country. This third month was the one to start with progressive openings.

In my home country, Belgium, reopening came from a long process of negotiations between governments (we have 6… – I think – I know, you’re jealous. Don’t be.) and experts annexed by foot long reports (read by nobody, including journalists). The whole process is, sometimes painfully, live documented and commented in the news. In Belgium everyone has something to say on policies and we achieve what is called “un compromis à la Belge”, a Belgian compromise, which means an agreement accepted by everyone, but which is also criticized by everyone in the end. Nobody is happy, but nobody is too angry either. It’s a very subtle equilibrium that has fitted everyone in Belgium pretty much since World War II. You should watch the Belgian News, it’s very entertaining. 

Here, the process wasn’t public at all, and rules that applied “until further notice”, then just stopped being applicable. You have to be pretty flexible and informed, which isn’t easy considering the number of fake news posts around or complete misinterpretations or translations from Arab to English (it’s a must to have some very close Arabic speaking friends!). There is not one clear channel of information for all the UAE as every Emirate (there are 7) can decide its own policies.

Usually, in the Emirates family, Abu Dhabi is the serious brother, the one who always takes the right decisions, the wise man who saves, takes care of the elderly and the kids. While Dubai is the young wild brother who will never commit and spent a fortune to impress someone with a fancy car (or a building). But in this crisis, I wonder who the family man is. After imposing a Wuhan-style lockdown, Dubai decided to reopen everything, restaurants, hotels, bars, cinemas, gyms, parks, you name it, quickly going to 100% capacity. Dubai also softened the masks for kids, people doing exercise, etc. Abu Dhabi on the other side, after a softer lockdown decided to reopen malls and restaurants at 30% only and for the 12-59-year-olds. Kids are basically forbidden everywhere. Parks and beaches are closed, exercise is only allowed close to home and a curfew is still on. Masks (AND GLOVES in shops) are mandatory for everyone ALL THE TIME. Well, with the lovely 43 degrees and polluted air that we have now in June, I can tell you the mask is the little extra that makes you want to stay inside.

I WON’T SPEND A DIME UNTIL MY KIDS CAN GO OUTSIDE – A side note, just in case someone who actually takes decisions reads me.

Last week, Abu Dhabi also decided to close its border, or rather set up a border, with Dubai. If you planned to escape there to enjoy the beach, it won’t be possible until further notice. If you’ve just moved here (Abu Dhabi) and your container has arrived in Jebel Ali port (Dubai), you won’t get your things soon. I hope you didn’t have to many heat sensitive things in there. My candles didn’t fare well under 50 degrees Celsius, with the extra days in the heat, it’s bound to be great fun unpacking… wear gloves ! There must have been some big family row after Ramadan that we don’t know about. I also have a feeling that Eid celebrations might have been (walking on eggs here) a little bit bigger in some places than what was allowed… Hence, the whole situation is so not like Emiratis or Arab culture in general. This country is welcoming and open.  But the fear of the virus had it changed, like it changed me too.

Truth is, the crisis hit hard in this country based on massive spending. This country’s investments have gone in the most fragile industry to be in in this crisis; entertainment! Tourists can’t come and spend their money here anymore. Residents (me first) realized they could actually save money by staying at home. Moreover, thousands of residents are losing their job and have to leave the country within 30 days. The estimate is that about 10% of the population is leaving the UAE due to the crisis; that’s more than 1 million people and the crisis is just starting! According to a recent survey, 70% of Dubai’s business said they are afraid to go bankrupt over the next 6 months if this crisis lasts too long. All the sudden, these extravagant restaurants, shopping malls, amusement parks are empty and getting into trouble much faster than we thought. It’s the other side of this paradise country for expats. They came here, worked (some for big bucks) without paying one dime of taxes and all of a sudden they are fired or put on unpaid leave. There is no such thing as comfy social security here, this is why you never paid taxes, remember. And we can’t ignore the poorer workers, those who are struggling to catch a flight to their country. 

This is how we already witnessed many friends and relatives leaving the country, by the back door. It’s hard. You can’t even properly say goodbye these days and I had never thought that people I took for granted could ever leave like this. It makes you realize your blessings pretty quickly.

With everything happening in the world this year, I felt dizzy once again, not really in the mood for jokes (very unusual if you know me). However, as I finally came to peace with the idea that this “lockdown situation” or “I’m not locked in but I kind of have nowhere to go” will last some months, I wanted to write a blog post a little different this time, I hope you won’t mind.

When you are an expat, you live the Covid-19 crisis differently. First, because you can’t help but to compare the facts between countries, you see the bigger picture and it drives you crazy. Second, because you’re not in your homeland but you’re in the country where your home is. Not being able to travel, isn’t about vacations for us, it’s about going back home or not. But if you go home, you might not be able to go back to your home after all (do you follow? Confusing isn’t it? The home concept is very complicated for us). Some residents (more than 200.000) have been blocked outside the UAE for months now with the border closed. Some friends chose not to go back to give the last greeting to a family member because of the risk. Can you imagine that? What’s on your mind at night when you’re an expat is different. Today I wish I could be in one clap next to my best friend in Belgium to help her, but I can’t. I’m afraid this crisis will change forever the expat luxurious life we had, which was; enjoying a foreign country but being able to jump on a plane and go back to the homeland like an unexpected (tanned) knight. I hope I’m wrong, because I like my expat life and I like Belgium (even more from afar), I don’t want to chose exile forever. I mean, they can’t cook proper Belgian Fries here…