The Egyptian authorities are not excluding the possibility of a fully-fledged lockdown “should it become necessary” to reduce the chances of a significant increase in the cases of coronavirus infections in Egypt.
On Monday, Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal said that this was not a choice that the authorities would immediately opt for unless there was no other way to ensure that people restricted their movements.
“I think there is disappointment that the public is not getting the message beyond the decision of the government to close schools and universities for two weeks. The government does not wish to impose a lockdown, but it might find it inevitable,” a government source said on Monday.
“We are taking one step at a time and acting in a measured way that is proactive but not over-reactive.”
Before opting for a lockdown, the source said, there might be other steps like significantly reducing working hours or imposing a limited curfew from 6pm to 6am.
Heikal on Monday warned of “a disastrous situation” if the public does not act responsibly by reducing social interactions to the minimum. He spoke hours after Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli announced that Egypt would suspend international flights as of today, 19 March, until 31 March.
The prime minister said the decision was part of plans to counter the threat of the Covid-19 virus.
Ahmed, who works for a tourism company in Cairo, said the decision to suspend international flights was putting “incredible pressure on everyone” to make sure visitors in Egypt get back home safely. “We had already started sending people back to their countries before the shutdown of their local airports, but now things are much more pressing,” he said.
On Tuesday, 24 hours after the announcement, Ahmed was still trying hard to bring tourists back from resorts in Egypt and help them to get home.
In his Monday press conference, Madbouli appealed to the public to opt for social distancing and not to take matters lightly so that Egypt could avoid the kind of spread of the Covid-19 virus that other countries are facing.
The decision to suspend international flights came 48 hours after a decision announced on Saturday to suspend schools and universities.
On Tuesday, Egypt recorded a total of 196 cases of the new coronavirus. The first cases were diagnosed earlier this month among foreign tourists aboard a Nile cruiser and Egyptians working on the ship.
Since then, Egypt has officially recorded six deaths from the virus.
On Monday evening, the Ministry of Health announced the forced quarantine on 300 families in a Delta town who had all mingled with two of the deceased. Quarantines were also enforced in villages in Luxor and Minya, the two other governorates with diagnosed cases.
Almost all the diagnosed cases have been put under medical quarantine. According to the Ministry of Health, 26 cases have already recovered fully, while 34 have tested negative after having earlier been thought to have tested positive.
With several cases of tourists testing positive for Covid-19 after arriving in their countries after visiting Egypt, there has been speculation on the spread of the virus in Egypt.
This week, a UK daily newspaper carried comments by a Western researcher who suggested that the cases of the virus in Egypt could be in the thousands rather than the announced figures.
On Monday, Minister of Health Hala Zayed shrugged off this assessment and insisted that Egypt was being transparent in its announcements on recorded cases of Covid-19. “We are not hiding anything,” Zayed said.
“There is always a gap between the actual cases and what gets recorded because if someone is young and healthy he could well recover without needing to be hospitalised,” the government medical source said.
Given that tests for Covid-19 are administered only in government medical labs it would be impossible, the same source said, for any cases to be proven positive and not to be recorded.
The source added that all countries were obliged to inform the World Health Organisation (WHO) of recorded cases and there had been no complaints about Egypt’s compliance.
According to the source, there was awareness in government bodies that things could get worse. However, he added there was also hope that things could be contained with the measures being taken.
Covid-19 was essentially a winter virus and it tends to be more harmful to older than younger people, with the latter being the largest segment of the Egyptian population, he said.
“We certainly might move into the hundreds of cases in the coming weeks, especially if people continue to refrain from social distancing. But hopefully by the beginning of summer things will get better,” the source said.
A peak in the infection rate is inevitable before the decline starts “hopefully around late May or early June,” he said.
On Saturday, Madbouli said that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had allocated close to $6 million (LE100 million) to an emergency plan to combat the new coronavirus. The Ministry of Health has been stepping up measures to provide increased testing and treatment facilities to all suspected cases of Covid-19.
In parallel, the Ministry of Supply has been revising stocks of essential commodities to face up to possible panic shopping that has already been monitored over the weekend in the wake of the announcement of the second death reported in the Delta.
On Monday, Madbouli appealed to the public to be reassured about the stocks of supplies and to refrain from excessive shopping.
Some supermarket chains have already announced plans to allocate special hours for shopping by senior citizens or to set up special hotlines for elderly people and citizens with special needs.
“We are thinking about what we will do if there is a crisis situation, but so far things seem to be under control,” said Hani, the director of a branch of a supermarket chain. “We have to keep refilling on sanitisers, detergents, and tissues, but otherwise things are under control,” he added.
There has been stress on pharmacies, however. Several pharmacists in Cairo, Giza, Tanta and Alexandria said they were coming under pressure to provide medical sanitisers, masks, and common cold medication, as well as a range of medicines used for high blood pressure and diabetes.
“People panic out of fears that pharmacies could be closed, and they are overbuying out of fears that they could run short on essential needs,” said Hoda, a pharmacist in Nasr City.
Meanwhile, the pharmacists agreed that they were actually short on supplies of masks and sanitisers due to the sudden excessive demand.
“We are hoping that the closure of the schools will reduce demand because a good part of the sales was to parents keen to provide their children with sanitisers and masks. We are hoping that when people start to stay at home things will get better,” said Mamdouh, a pharmacist in a leading chain in Dokki.
Meanwhile, stores of IT devices, home appliances, and spare parts for cars have been worried that supply chains could be disrupted because of the closing of factories in China.
Images of panicked shopping in Egyptian cities have been much less significant than those coming from other cities around the world, especially in Europe and the US.
On Monday, chief of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appealed to governments to do more to test suspected cases and to quarantine others to contain the spread of the virus. Since the beginning of the outbreak until this week, worldwide diagnosed cases of the new coronavirus had surpassed 200,000 while deaths had surpassed 6,000.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed this week for all countries to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We are facing a health threat unlike any other in our lifetimes,” Guterres said. “We must act together to slow the spread of the virus and to look after each other.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly