Egypt attempts to strike a balance in COVID-19 battle

Egypt attempts to strike a balance in COVID-19 battle

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Disinfectant is sprayed inside the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo. (Reuters)

Like the rest of the world, Egypt is faced with a question. The country’s situation in terms of the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and deaths may not be very dangerous compared to others. Egypt has passed 1,500 cases, with a mortality rate of 6 to 7 percent. As for cured cases, Egypt’s rate is among the best in the world, according to the Ministry of Health.

The situation in Egypt today is not critical, but it may soon be so — it could get out of control within a few days if Egyptian citizens do not commit to the strict instructions and preventive measures taken by their government to prevent the spread of the virus. But is the duality of the state and citizens in Egypt, with its cultural and intellectual specificities, capable of defeating COVID-19? This is the question many are now asking and, in order to get close to answering it, we must take a look at how the government has handled this crisis from the start.

The first COVID-19 case in Egypt was announced on Feb. 14 and the patient was a foreigner. Preparations at the time were not at an emergency level, but they became more serious in early March, when 12 cases were confirmed aboard a Nile cruise ship that was sailing between Luxor and Aswan. The Ministry of Health moved quickly, quarantining and treating confirmed cases; testing those who were in contact with them; building a system to monitor, investigate and follow up on new cases; importing the supplies needed for carrying out COVID-19 tests; equipping its labs across the country to provide the tests; updating inventories and keeping track of the number of hospital beds, equipment and staff; developing a protocol for physicians to diagnose and treat COVID-19 cases; and designing informative awareness messages for the community to reduce the number of new cases.

The ministry identified a list of 27 hospitals (one in each governorate) to conduct tests and diagnose suspected cases, while quarantining them until the results are produced, in addition to preparing isolation hospitals. With the increasing number of cases, the government started to treat the matter as a wartime plan. It took a number of preventive measures, the most important being the infusion of billions of Egyptian pounds into the Egyptian Exchange and exempting investors and businessmen from fines and taxes.

In terms of health measures, flights to and from Egypt have been suspended, schools have been closed until further notice, the number of government employees has been reduced, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and malls have been closed, and a partial curfew has been imposed between 7pm and 6am.

The Egyptian government is facing two crises in its plan. The first is that Egypt, like most affected countries, does not have enough equipment to expand the scope of COVID-19 testing. According to a report issued on March 27 by the World Health Organization technical support mission sent to Egypt from Geneva, the country currently has the capacity to conduct 200,000 tests. Health Minister Hala Zayed said recently that the ministry had conducted about 25,000 tests so far. Things may get out of control if the number of cases rapidly increases, which would mean a higher number of people to test. The government may not be able to manage due to the limited number of test kits available.

Things may also get out of control if the number of cases exceeds the capacity of the isolation and quarantine hospitals. This, according to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, would bring us to the third stage, which is the strictest in terms of taking measures, but he is betting on the citizens’ awareness. This brings us to the second crisis facing the government in its fight against coronavirus, which is Egyptian citizens’ awareness.

The goal is to maintain the relative balance between sustaining the business cycle in the country — not reaching the imperative of full closure — and the partial curfew currently in place. We must, therefore, work to ensure that things do not get out of control if the number of cases rises.

Perhaps there are some negative aspects that impact the performance of the government in the crisis, and it is clearly affected by the global as well as the local situation. As for the Egyptian citizens, there are those who believe that a large segment of society has not fulfilled its duty to stop the spread of the virus — at least until now. But there are convincing responses to this accusation, the simplest of which is that most of those who are not committing to the measures are being prevented from doing so by their living conditions. They must work to be able to live, and they must commute using public transport — they cannot afford to avoid mixing with others.

The biggest reason for concern is the continued gatherings and complacency in practicing social distancing. This can be seen, for instance, in Cairo’s subway, which transports about 3.5 million people every day and continues to operate from 6am until 7pm. This is normal in light of the current situation and the inability to make a decision that is stricter than the partial closure. Gatherings can also be seen in supermarkets, street markets, major commercial squares and streets, and big cities, most notably Cairo and Alexandria.

The biggest reason for concern is the continued gatherings and complacency in practicing social distancing.

Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy

Perhaps the government is attempting to maintain a delicate balance between warning the population of what is expected in terms of a rising number of cases on the one hand and avoiding mass panic on the other. But this attempt must not last long, and different measures must be taken to ensure the success of the partial curfew, so that it can suffice without reaching a complete curfew.

Strict measures to deal with violators may work in the short term, but effective steps to change the culture of the Egyptian mind require more work, starting with educational institutions and continuing throughout life. As I wrote this article, I read news about the dispersal of several gatherings in different places across the country. People have also gathered to perform Friday prayers in defiance of the decision to ban prayers in mosques and churches. This is a cultural issue. 

  • Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy 
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