Israel's chief epidemiologist angers UAE with coronavirus accusations

Israel's chief epidemiologist angers UAE with coronavirus accusations
Hundreds of Israelis have tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from the UAE, according to official data.
4 min read
29 January, 2021
More than 100,000 Israelis have traveled to the UAE since December [Getty]
Israel's top epidemiologist sparked a minor diplomatic incident with the UAE this week after claiming that relations with Abu Dhabi had caused Covid-19 deaths to skyrocket.

Around 130,000 Israeli tourists have travelled to the United Arab Emirates since direct flights opened between the two countries late last year following an historic normalisation agreement.

Since then, more than 900 returning tourists have tested positive, according to the Israeli health ministry, infecting an estimated 4,000 contacts in Israel.

Those figures led chief epidemiologist Sharon Alroy-Preis to claim that "more Israelis died in two weeks of peace with Dubai than in 70 years of war with Dubai". Israel and the UAE were never at war, however.

Alroy-Preis' remarks, made in a Zoom meeting with Israeli hospital directors, were later published by Channel 13.

The assertion that relations with the UAE had caused increased coronavirus cases and deaths sparked uproar in Abu Dhabi, Axios reported.

Emirati officials called the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest, Israeli officials told Axios.

Advisors to Netanyahu apologised for the remarks, stressing that Israel does not hold the UAE responsible for the increase in cases.

The Israeli health ministry had earlier called for a ban on flights to and from the UAE but the move was reportedly blocked by Netanyahu and the foreign ministry, worried over damaging the fledgling relationship with Abu Dhabi.

Travel to the Gulf state was ultimately halted on Monday, however, with a temporary ban on all international flights to prevent the spread of worrying new coronavirus variants.

UAE cases spark international concern

Israel's top epidemiologist is not the only foreign official to have linked travel to the UAE with the spread of Covid-19.

Dubai, known for its long-haul carrier Emirates, the world's tallest building and its beaches and bars, in July became one of the first travel destinations to describe itself as open for business.

The move staunched the bleeding of its crucial tourism and real estate sectors after lockdowns and curfews cratered its economy.

As tourism restarted, daily reported coronavirus case numbers slowly grew but mostly remained stable through the fall.

But then came New Year's Eve - a major draw for travellers from countries otherwise shut down over the virus who partied without face masks in bars and on yachts.

For the last 17 days, the United Arab Emirates as a whole has reported record daily coronavirus case numbers as lines at Dubai testing facilities grow.

In the United Kingdom, tabloids splashed shots of bikini-clad British influencers partying in Dubai while the country struggled through lockdowns trying to control the virus.

Britain in mid-January closed a travel corridor to Dubai that had allowed travellers to skip quarantine over what was described as a significant acceleration in the number of imported cases from the UAE.

"International travel, right now, should not be happening unless it's absolutely necessary," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC this week. "No parties in Paris or weekends in Dubai. That is not on and in most cases, it's against the law."

Meanwhile, mutated strains of the coronavirus have been linked back to Dubai. The UK instituted a travel ban on Friday, barring direct flights to the UAE over the spread of a South African variant of the coronavirus.

Denmark already discovered one traveller coming from Dubai who tested positive for the South African variant - the first such discovery there. Like Britain, Danish celebrities similarly travelled to Dubai for the New Year.

In the Philippines, health authorities say they discovered a British strain infecting a Filipino who made a business trip to Dubai on December 27. He returned to the Philippines on January 7 and tested positive.

He "had no exposure to a confirmed case prior to their departure to Dubai", the Philippines Department of Health said. In the time since, Filipino authorities have discovered at least 16 other cases of the British variant, including two coming from Lebanon.

As daily reported coronavirus cases near 4,000, Dubai has fired the head of its government health agency without explanation.

It stopped live entertainment at bars, halted nonessential surgeries, limited wedding sizes and ordered gyms to increase space between those working out. It also now requires coronavirus testing for all those flying into its airport.

The UAE had pinned its hopes on mass vaccinations, with Abu Dhabi distributing a Chinese vaccine by Sinopharm and Dubai offering Pfizer-BioNTech's inoculation. The UAE says it has given 2.8 million doses so far, ranking it among the top countries in the world.

The UAE's autocratic government has been accused of failing to take control of the spiraling caseload.

"The leadership bases its decisions on recommendations from the team, the wrong recommendations which put human souls in danger and negatively affect our society," said Nasser al-Shaikh, Dubai's former finance chief, adding that "our economy requires accountability".

Abu Dhabi told those worried earlier this week to "refrain from questioning the efforts of all those who have worked to contain this pandemic."

Agencies contributed to this report

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