Coronavirus: inside the UAE's disinfection drive
Hundreds mobilise to sanitise city streets from dusk until dawn
After sunset each night, hundreds of men in masks and white hazmat suits work their way through the country’s city centres, sprawling suburbs and small mountain towns, spraying disinfectant to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Images of cleaners disinfecting churches in Beirut, bridges in Venice, and bazaars in Tehran have become a familiar sight as the world settles into self-isolation and waits out the pandemic.
In the UAE, the government campaign seeks not only to disinfect cities but almost the entirety of the country.
Since March 26, residents have remained in their homes each night from 8pm while the National Sterilisation Programme deep-cleans the streets.
I don’t see that this is something temporary
Khaled Al Huraimel, Bee'ah
In Sharjah and parts of Abu Dhabi, the drive is co-ordinated by waste management and recycling company Beeah. Logistics are not so different from its waste collection and treatment operations, which employ 7,000 people and 1,200 vehicles.
The company is now considering hiring a permanent sanitisation unit.
“The world is changing and, in a way, the world now is post-corona,” said Khaled Al Huraimel, the company’s group chief executive. “People will take much more care of keeping their cities clean, their communities clean and their personal hygiene. So I don’t see that this is something temporary. I think this is something long term.”
Mobilisation begins at 6pm nightly as civil defence and police prepare to barricade roads. In Sharjah, a team of about 100 street cleaners divide into three groups and set to work the minute the clock strikes eight.
Crews blast plumes of the acidic solution on to ATMs and phone booths, bus benches and rubbish bins, and anywhere a germ-covered hand may have landed.
More than 200 vehicles are used during the 10-hour operation. There are boxy street washers that shoot disinfectant on to the road, and eight spray cannons mounted on the backs of lorries and trailers, each loaded with 4,000 litres of solution, that shoot vapour up to 50 metres away. There are electric vehicles with manual pressure spray guns and a whole convoy of support vehicles, including fuel trucks, buses and water tankers.
Street washer vehicles and spray cannons cover between 120km and 170km in the 10-hour shift on routes provided by the municipality, averaging about a kilometre every four minutes.
Beeah has covered about 2,000km to date, starting from the dense high-rise districts of Sharjah's city centre before moving to more spacious residential neighbourhoods.
About 6,000 litres of disinfectant is used nightly. The aqueous solution contains hypochlorous acid, a non-hazardous, weak acid that is approved by the World Health Organisation and is harmless to plants and animals.
Disinfecting surfaces can stem the spread of the coronavirus and improve general sanitation.
“Right now, we cannot put anything at risk," said Mr Al Huraimel. “As you know, people are still discovering new things about this virus every day and we know it stays on different types of material from a few hours to a few days.”
Beeah took note of the pandemic early on. When China’s Hubei province went into lockdown, it ordered fogging machines and high-pressure spray cannons from Europe and disinfectant from UAE producers.
It increased its number of buses and expanded labour accommodation to give people more space, and set up isolation rooms with Wi-Fi, iPads and televisions. Accommodation has been fitted with disinfection pods to give workers a quick blast, like those at bus stops.
By the time the government began its national programme, Beeah was prepared. The public-private partnership participates in the campaign at its own expense.
“What’s happening today in the world is people are more aware of keeping their cities clean,” said Mr Al Huraimel. “This was a challenge we faced before.”
He asked the public to help with proper rubbish disposal.
Waste should be disposed in sealed bags and potentially infected waste, like used tissues, masks or gloves, should be separated from general waste or recyclables. Critically, people must put rubbish in the bin, not next to it, to limit the spread of disease and workers’ exposure to waste.
“There were problems previously that could lead to spread of disease,” he said. “The community also needs to play its role.”
Updated: April 8, 2020 12:32 PM