Egypt is in the grip of fears of an uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. With the numbers, at 402 cases and 20 deaths, coronavirus appears to be held at bay.
But this may be a false perception, given that health experts have been circulating information that the two weeks starting 21 March are critical in how the virus will spread; its spread might be abated or might fan out of all control.
Until the beginning of February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared Egypt to be free of COVID-19 cases.
However, with COVID-19 then spreading from China to more than a dozen countries and the number of cases in China spiking, and with WHO declaring a global health emergency, Egypt too declared a health emergency.
Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed put the country’s health authorities on high alert, taking cautionary measures against the virus entering Egypt. A crisis operations room was set up at the Ministry of Health to remain updated on the global outbreak of the virus, and monitor conditions of arrivals at Egypt’s borders through air, sea, or land terminals.
Quarantine quarters were set up, put on high alert, their facilities checked and upgraded, and their staff beefed up. Fever hospitals across the country were prepared for COVID-19 cases; they were provided with sufficient laboratory equipment, utilities, drugs and medicines. Their quarantine space was expanded and upgraded.
At a cost of EGP55 million, the Ministry of Health deployed 10 new self-sterilising ambulance vehicles, each equipped with an intensive care unit, to airports and ports in Cairo, Alexandria, South Sinai, Luxor, and Aswan. Medical teams were trained to work on them. The Ministry also provided 430 remote-control infrared temperature scanners, and 2.5 million masks.
Awareness campaigns were launched to inform the public on Coronavirus and COVID-19 disease.
Visitors to Egypt or Egyptians arriving from countries where COVID-19 had been detected were checked at their arrival points and handed follow-up cards so they could be monitored at their places of residence during the 14-day incubation period of the virus.
Arrivals from China were given thorough checks and quarantined, and the medical staff dealing with them monitored.
Home from China
As to Egyptians in China, and especially in Wuhan, none of them had contracted COVID-19 according to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and the Egyptian Embassy in Beijing. They were airlifted home to Egypt and quarantined. The aircraft that brought them home had carried to China 10 tons of preventive medical utilities, as a token of support and goodwill.
Once their isolation period expired, the 302 Egyptians who had returned home from China were warmly welcomed by Health Minister Dr Zayed who chatted and took selfies with them, and offered gifts to the children among them.
Jean Jabbour, WHO representative in Egypt, commended Egypt’s prompt and transparent action, and its cautionary plan to deal with Coronavirus, saying it was among the first countries to do so. He said WHO strongly supported Egypt in carrying out its plan.
On 14 February, Egypt announced its first Coronavirus-positive infection. It was a foreign national; he was directly quarantined and monitored, and was declared a carrier of the virus since he displayed no symptoms of the disease. It was later announced by WHO and Egypt’s Ministry of Health that, while in isolation, he repeatedly tested negative for the virus and, on 25 February, WHO again declared Egypt Coronavirus-free.
Egypt’s second COVID-19 case was announced on 3 March. That weekend, 8 March, the first COVID-19 death occurred. It was a 60-year-old German national who had been among passengers on board a Luxor Nile cruiser that carried 171 persons: 101 foreigners and 70 Egyptians. Forty-five of them tested positive for the virus. All who were on board the cruiser were quarantined, and the boat disinfected.
On 14 March, COVID-19 figures in Egypt stood at 150 cases and two deaths.
Stemming spread of virus
The government announced measures to stem the spread of the virus. Large gatherings were banned; sidewalk cafes, gathering halls, amusement parks, and all places of close-encounter gatherings were closed. Condolence and wedding events were banned. All sports activities were suspended.
Schools, learning institutions, and universities were closed, with provisions made for online studying and examinations. Nurseries for pre-school children, and learning centres for children with special needs or for private tutoring were closed.
Workforce in government offices and businesses was reduced, with staff encouraged to work from home whenever possible. Pregnant women and those who had children under 12 were granted exceptional leave, for health considerations and seeing that nurseries and schools had closed.
For its part, the Coptic Church halted all activities, meetings, and Sunday School; allowing only Mass. Pope Tawadros suspended his weekly prayer meeting, and said that, instead, his Scripture reading and sermon would be televised live every Wednesday evening. The Church would later close all churches; and the Ministry of Religious Endowments would close all mosques. The Pope would broadcast a short televised daily word under the title: “Lord have mercy on us again and again”.
As the daily numbers of COVID-19 cases escalated, Egypt’s government stepped up its cautionary measures.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli announced suspension of air traffic at all Egyptian airports starting 19 March till 31 March, and further extended it to 15 April. Hotels and touristic spots, he said, could use the opportunity to sanitise their facilities.
In fact, since that date, many facilities in Egypt have been disinfected and sanitised, including St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, which was sanitised by Egypt’s Armed Forces as a service to the Church.
Mr Madbouli addressed the fear among Egyptians that the cautionary measures against COVID-19 might lead to shortage in vital supplies, so they have been stockpiling on foods and household needs. He said there was no need for panic shopping, since Egypt’s strategic supplies can cover several months ahead.
It did not help, however, that many young Egyptians felt they had been granted an unanticipated holiday, and converged on coffee shops and shopping centres, oblivious to health warnings against crowding. The PM said the State was taking all measures at all costs to halt the spread of the virus, but he reminded that the public must cooperate through avoiding gatherings and following health recommendations. Finally, on 24 March, a curfew was announced from 7pm to 6am the following day, effective as of 25 March.
Economy … and Culture
In a bid to abate the negative impact of COVID-19 on the economy, Egypt’s government has allocated an economic package worth EGP100 billion to fight the Coronavirus outbreak.
Civil servants and pensioners were granted raises starting July, the new fiscal year, and irregular workers were allowed to apply for government monetary aid.
The Monetary Policy Committee cut key interest rates by 3 per cent, and investors were granted grace periods to settle loans and taxes. To support the stock exchange, EGP20 billion were allocated.
Prices of gas and electricity for the industrial sector were reduced.
Banks raised daily transaction limits on credit cards and cancelled fees and commissions on ATM withdrawals.
And with Egyptians required to stay home as much as they could, Egypt’s Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem launched an initiative titled “Culture at your Hands”, that involves online broadcasting of gem performances of song, music, ballet and theatre works; also of films and documentaries, and all works produced by the Culture Ministry.
25 March 2020