Egypt’s Health Ministry announced this week that it temporarily suspended receiving applications from volunteers who are offering their services in dealing with the spread of the coronavirus.
The ministry’s Central Unit for Medical Service Providers Affairs (CUMSPA) called out to volunteers on 25 March as part of its efforts to take precautionary measures in the fight against the virus, and to shore up a possible shortage in doctors.
Under the slogan “Be a Hero”, the CUMSPA called for volunteers from all medical professions. It also requested medical college students, non-medical college students and non-medical workers.
It provided a website for registration and dedicated an e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.
The CUMSPA, established in October 2019, is responsible for improving work environment for workers in the public health sector.
“We received 10,000 applications, just three hours after opening the door for volunteers to register,” the CUMSPA said.
Mohamed Shaker, an IT engineer, wanted to apply but could not because applications had closed. “At least if I die, I would be a martyr in the line of duty,” he said.
The volunteers, according to CUMSPA, are set to work with medical support teams in isolation hospitals, referral procedures, field investigation, and follow-up as well as awareness teams.
“The figure — 10,000 volunteer applications — is very honourable and promising.” Doctors’ Syndicate Secretary-General Ehab Al-Taher told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The CUMSPA also stated that “all volunteers who will be selected as needed will be trained on the required tasks and also provided with protection and prevention means… This is our battle.
“God willing, we will not need these volunteers, but we must be ready if a large outbreak occurs. The non-medical workers who volunteered will be helpful in organisational and administrative work,” Al-Taher said.
Many countries have a shortage of medical workers and have resorted to calling up volunteers. In Britain, only 24 hours after an appeal announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock for 250,000 people “in good health” to help the National Health Service (NHS) deal with the spread of Covid-19, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on 25 March that 405,000 volunteers had signed up.
The scenario was repeated in Italy when its Civil Protection Department sought to create a task force of 300 doctors from across Italy to help treat patients in the worst-hit regions of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. Within 24 hours of putting out the call, according to the Italian daily The Local, the department announced on 23 March that it had received more than 7,900 applications.
In Egypt, in addition to calling up volunteers, the ministry has also opened the door for contracting retired physicians to make up for any shortfall. Health Minister Hala Zayed said that the ministry was taking in retired doctors to work in government hospitals if the doctor expresses a desire to do so.
Al-Taher said that it was preferable to assign young doctors to work on the front lines in isolation hospitals. “Contracting retired doctors might be useful but it has nothing to do with the fight against the coronavirus. They might be assigned in advisory positions or even work in hospitals that are not related to coronavirus,” he said.
Indeed, Zayed said on TV “we are trying to ensure that the doctors in the isolation hospitals are less than 50 years old so that they are not at risk of infection.”
That is why, the minister noted, retired doctors who are called up will work as consultants on scientific committees and will visit isolation hospitals, if necessary, only to audit.
Worldwide statistics and various research show that there is greater susceptibility to the virus among older patients who suffer other diseases, be it a weaker immune system, or simply worse overall health.
In an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Egypt has adopted a series of strict preventative measures, including imposing a night-time curfew, bringing air flights to a standstill, closing down mosques and churches and suspending classes at schools and universities.
At a conference in Cairo on Monday, John Jabbour, the representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Egypt, praised Egyptian doctors and the rest of the medical staff on the front line to combat the new coronavirus.
“I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the doctors, nursing staff and other health workers on the front lines of combating this pandemic, as they make every effort to save lives and prevent the spread of the virus inside the country despite the challenges,” Jabbour said.
In the press conference, Yvan Hutin, director for communicable diseases at the WHO’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, said “Egypt has a real opportunity to stop the transmission.”
Though Hutin warned that there is also a scenario by which transmission could expand, leading to a large number of cases in the country, he emphasised that the number of new cases detected in Egypt since the first case was confirmed on 14 February suggest that “transmission is limited to chains of infection.”
Egypt's health ministry reported 85 new coronavirus infections on Saturday 4 April, bringing the country’s total number of confirmed cases up to 1070, while the death toll stands at 71.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly