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Dubai's over-the-top delivery culture makes lockdown easier

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Dubai (AFP)

Tamara, one of Dubai's many foreign residents, hasn't been to a petrol station in years -- a click on a smart phone app is all it takes to bring a mini tanker to her doorstep.

In better times, the wealthy emirate's over-the-top delivery culture made life easy for citizens and expats who could summon groceries and services -- even a single chocolate bar -- within minutes.

Dubai is now under strict 24-hour lockdown but is ideally positioned for the "stay at home" coronavirus challenge.

A large number of delivery service operators bring anything under the sun, from a hot cup of morning coffee to your office, pharmacy items at midnight, or even giant ice cubes to cool swimming pools in the scorching summer heat.

Tamara, a 28-year old-Lebanese expatriate who works in social media, orders petrol once a week through an app for Cafu, the first fuel delivery service in the region.

Once she's sent her vehicle's location, the app which stores her number plate and credit details sends a driver with a mini-tanker within the hour, filling up the car while the customer is at home, work, or out at the shops or the gym.

"All (the customer) has to do is leave the fuel cup open... we don't need the customer to be there," Cafu driver Mullika Indy told AFP.

Even though Dubai's many petrol stations have attendants on hand to fill up the tank, with strict social distancing in force as the coronavirus spreads, Tamara says the #stayathome option is ever more appealing.

"I don't like waiting in queues or leaving home. I simply order and they come," she told AFP.

Promoted by authorities as a global "smart city", Dubai extensively uses state-of-the-art technology and mobile apps to allow most government transactions including fines and fees to be processed remotely.

Most people never visit their bank branch again after having set up their accounts.

- Delivery army -

The people who make it all possible are the army of delivery drivers who traverse the city's sprawling highway network at all hours of the day and night, under scorching summer heat and in rare winter storms.

In the weeks since the lockdown was enforced, the streets are almost deserted except for delivery motorbikes and vans racing to their destinations, becoming an essential "second line" response to the coronavirus outbreak after the "front line" medical workers.

"If we don't go out to deliver then everyone would have to leave their homes... then the spread of the coronavirus will become a big problem," Deliveroo driver Issa Jandir told AFP.

"With our mission to serve the community, God willing, it will help end the coronavirus outbreak," said the 38-year-old from Pakistan.

Delivery apps flash messages highlighting preventive measures adopted by drivers, including continuous sterilisation of hands and frequent medical tests.

The drivers wear gloves and masks and keep their distance, or drop the goods at the doorstep, to minimise contact with customers. Payment is normally made in advance through credit cards.

The services were busy in ordinary times, but now with the city's 3.4 million residents staying at home, they are under tremendous pressure, forcing some providers to announce delays until they have hired more staff.

Indian Chen Singh, 22, who also works for Deliveroo, said the service was slower than usual because of the pandemic and the extra precautions that need to be taken.

"Now, we have to first use sanitiser, then put on the gloves... we ring the doorbell and keep the order one metre (three feet) away from the door until it is collected."

- Malls deserted -

Dubai styles itself as a regional centre for trade and services, and it is a major tourist attraction, visited by more than 16 million tourists last year.

But the emirate, home to the world's tallest tower Burj Khalifa, has shut down its glitzy shopping malls and upscale restaurants as it fights the spread of coronavirus.

The disease has already infected more than 6,700 people in the United Arab Emirates, and 41 people have died.

Dubai, one of seven emirates in the UAE, imposed a 24-hour lockdown on April 4 as the number of cases soared.

But with the closure of malls, restaurants, cafes and public beaches, some delivery services are providing options to beat the boredom at home for Dubai residents not used to cooking or staying indoors for long.

Health and fitness centres, shut over the deadly disease, are offering to deliver fitness equipment for clients to help them excercise at home.

And deliveries of alcohol, which is allowed in Dubai, but only in certain places and to those holding alcohol "licences", is now also available for home delivery.

Wael Mohammed, a 35-year old engineer, says that Dubai could be the only city where residents need not be concerned about getting what they need delivered to their doorstep.

"Recently I ordered weights for exercising at home... Dubai will not be stopped by coronavirus," he told AFP.

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