A set of different proactive measures has been taken recently by Egypt to tackle the so-called Dragon Storm that hit parts of the country last Thursday and Friday and the novel coronavirus pandemic that has so far taken the lives of four people in Egypt and sickened 166 others.
The official response towards both problems marks a quantum leap in comparison with previous crises such as the heavy rains that showered large swathes of the country in October last year, causing traffic mayhem and bringing the capital Cairo to a standstill.
“Excellent performance” was how crisis management and human development expert Mamdouh Zidan expressed his appreciation for how the government dealt with the rain crisis.
Last week Wednesday, the Egyptian government declared a contingency plan to cope with the weather conditions only a few hours after a warning was released by the Egyptian meteorological Authority (EMA), steps that were roundly applauded, although nearly 20 people lost their lives in the severe weather, as per official figures.
The plan commenced with giving public and private sector employees a day off and suspending all schools and universities nationwide, and calling upon the public to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Had that not happened, hundreds, including school children, would have been stranded by the bad weather as was the case in previous heavy rain incidents.
Emptying streets was not the only step. The government formed a central operations unit to be in contact with concerned bodies to follow up on the situation. At the same time, the Irrigation Ministry reduced drainage from Lake Nasser to accommodate the amounts of rain in the Nile and canals.
Since the wee hours of Thursday, a number of trucks with water pumps were ready to be deployed to tackle any flooding. The cabinet continued issuing press releases over the course of the two days to keep people reassured and updated with the latest developments.
In the meantime, the government was also on the alert regarding the latest developments on the coronavirus. It adopted a package of preventive measures that ranged from closing down schools and universities to suspending all international flights to and from the country from 19 to 31 March at all airports nationwide.
This was a whole new approach considering a similar situation more than a decade ago. The then-government's reaction regarding bird flu and H1N1— which were both newly discovered epidemics at the time — was a whole different story.
General Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, head of the Crisis and Disaster Management Sector in the cabinet, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government was being scientific when tackling crises. There are three levels to managing a crisis, Abdel-Maksoud said, the first being the preparation of a plan by his department backed by solid information and in coordination with concerned entities.
The second is handled by a supreme committee chaired by the prime minister. The third level is up to the executive apparatuses, Abdel-Maksoud explained.
On the rainstorms, Abdel-Maksoud said all the governorates were contacted to make sure of their readiness, especially since about 500 million cubic metres of rainwater were estimated to have fallen.
The Armed Forces and civil defence also stepped in to give a hand in tackling the flood because the governorates’ capacities were not sufficient to cover such a situation by themselves.
The same thing is happening now to cope with the coronavirus, Abdel-Maksoud said, and reduce risk. He pointed out that his department is also tasked with following up on and collecting all updates concerning the virus worldwide.
“What we can see currently is that the ministries and other bodies apparently have become more cooperative with each other and are working systematically,” human development expert Zidan explained.
Zidan, however, believes that citizens must do their part as well. “The 14-day halt of educational activities is a good decision to ward off the virus but it will not bear fruit if people ignore other preventive measures and flock to malls, cafés and other public places instead of staying at home,” he added.
Mohamed Sherdi, a journalist and crisis management expert, said that the government’s performance in the weather crisis was “better than ever”, adding that officials should keep it up.
He, however, added that the government should have warned of the consequences of such weather conditions on the regions that lie near spillways.
At least eight people were killed in building collapses in the low-income district of Al-Zarayeb in the 15 May suburb in southern Cairo due to the inclement weather. The buildings were sited near spillways and so were the first to be affected by the heavy rain.
Sherdi underscored the necessity of acknowledging the infrastructure deficiencies in some areas in Egypt as that would make people more responsive to and confident in their government.
Sherdi suggested the cabinet hold a daily briefing, in the presence of two or three ministers, to keep in touch with people underscoring that this act aims at being the main source of information.
The state should not leave the public to outside sources of information as people always take a fancy to viral information even if it is inaccurate, he explained.
“That will assist the state in tackling any crisis properly, on one hand, and deliver accurate and rapid information which will rebuild trust between the people and government, which is an important matter,” Sherdi said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly