Dubai: Dubai-based Pankaj Shah, 75, a photographer, took his nine-year-old son, Dhruv, to a stationery mart to buy some supplies for a school project recently. “The security stopped us from going inside as my son was below 12 . He could not make out my age with a mask, but when I told him I was 75, of course, I was stopped too.”
Mario Belloni 75, a Swiss national and UAE resident for more than 25 years, was also turned away from a mall and restaurant. “I love the UAE, have been a successful businessman, am totally active and alert, my health report is perfect and yet I was turned away,” he rued.
There are many like Shah, Dhruv and Belloni, who are desperate to get back into the mainstream after the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Prevention prohibited the entry of children below 12 and adults above the age of 60 years in shopping malls, retail stores, cooperative societies and supermarkets. The move has been taken to protect the health interests of these two vulnerable groups.
Children usually find it difficult to adhere to protocols and wear masks and gloves and maintain social distance and can be potential triggers for community transmissions while adults above the age of 60 usually suffer from other co-morbidities such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension that compromises their immunity and pushes them into a high-risk category.
In order to facilitate the lives of senior residents, most emirates have initiated programmes to assist them. For instance, in Dubai, the Community Development Authority and the Dubai Police under the aegis of the Secure Together campaign reached out to over 8,000 senior residents, bringing to their doorsteps groceries and medicines and assisting them with hospital visits.
Greater integration sought:
But while the older generation are appreciative of these efforts, they are appealing for some level of integration into the mainstream as they claim they are lonely, miss the fresh air outside and have no social interaction, while the children too are yearning to be in the malls.
Shah said, “COVID-19 is going to be around for some time and despite our best precautions we are bound to be exposed to it. What is important is to build a strong immunity. I have done that in my case. I practise yoga regularly, take natural herbal remedies to strengthen my immunity and I am perfectly healthy, I don’t fear the virus at all. In fact, I find younger people in the age group of 45-55 more stressed out and with co-morbidities and compromised immune systems.”
While people argue that online facilities for groceries and medicines are easily available, the seniors say it is not just a matter of buying their essentials. As Shah said: “I prefer stepping out and buying my food and essentials myself from the supermarket every week. For the last one month, I have also had some pending telecommunication issues and because most service centres are in malls, I was unable to go there and resolve the issue.”
Belloni said in Switzerland where more than 30 per cent of the population is over 60, malls are open from 10 am to 12 noon for the seniors and they are able to enjoy the outing safely. "Here I live in Blue Water Islands. I recently had to get my prescription glasses adjusted, had to go to the bank and to the telecom office, but I could not enter any of these places and had to depend on someone else to help me out. There is a need to have segregated timings for seniors here too.”
Shabbir Kapadia, a few months away from 60 and a businessman from Sharjah, has not even tried going to a mall because he fears being stopped. “It’s disappointing, I keep myself very fit although I do have diabetes and hypertension. It would be nice if some spots in the mall can be dedicated for seniors which can be distanced from the crowd. My wife and I are finding it difficult without social interaction.”
Parents of children below 12 are also frustrated as they are unable to go out to the malls after three months of confinement. Natalie Hobbs, a Dubai resident with two daughters - Amelia, six, and Olivia, five - feels the younger children are being left behind amid the pandemic.
“The last three months have been a massive transition for my daughters who have been on a tight schedule with e-learning. It has not been easy for the kids,” she said. “They have not been able to meet any friends and the screen time per day has extended for many hours which is not healthy. “This summer it is important that children are allowed in the malls, especially as it is too hot to take them to parks or beaches. Maybe they can have some designated kid areas where appropriate sanitisation is carried out and social distancing is maintained,” said Hobbs.
Speaking on behalf of many harried mothers managing kids in small apartments, Hobbs said: “It is very limiting and I feel for children who live in small apartments. Malls are safe, clean and constantly sanitised, there are temperature checks and people wear gloves, masks and observe social distancing. It should be safe for kids to go there even if for a couple of hours. Mothers can be careful and children can at best wear a face shield and pretend to be in a sci-fi game, if there is fear their face masks will slip,” she added.
Sarah Kapadia, a Sharjah resident and young mother of two - daughter Batoul, six and son Mehlam, six months - said: “My daughter was actually very sad the other day and told me she had no friends and that no one came to meet her. After things have opened up, I still cannot take my children to the mall and this is very disheartening.”
Doctors urge patience:
Dr Mathew Alappat, specialist in Internal medicine at the JTS Medical Centre, explained why it makes sense for seniors and children below 12 to remain indoors.
“We must not forget that even though the economy has opened up, the virus is still around,” he said. “Younger children have been restricted because they are highly mobile and run around and even though they might remain asymptomatic after catching the virus , they can play a huge rule in community transmission as they can have multiple contacts.
“While people may not agree with the cut off age of 60 for restricted entry, it is a fact that older people with or without co–morbidities have a far greater risk of contracting a severe version of the disease. The government is doing everything to control the spread with perfect hygiene and sanitation protocols in place, the national sterilisation programme, screening and testing of a large number of people and other decisive steps.
“If they open malls to seniors and very young children, they might be risking the spread of the disease.” Dr Alappat added that it was only a matter of time before there is a transition to normalcy. “People must have the patience to gently ease into regular life.”
What seniors, parents of kids under 12 want:
- Designated entrances and play areas for kids below 12 at the malls with precautionary measures in place
- Dedicated hours every day for seniors at malls, groceries, supermarkets, retail shops and coffee shops with all other precautionary measures in place