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Sunday, 05 July 2020

Egypt scrapping the lockdown

Despite the surge in coronavirus infections government officials are set to reopen the economy

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 2 Jun 2020
Egypt and coronavirus
photo: Reuters
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Egypt will gradually move back to normal during the second half of June, according to Cabinet Spokesperson Nader Saad.

“All activities, services and businesses will be allowed to operate again, though not in one go,” he said in a TV interview on 30 May.

The coronavirus crisis management group, which meets every Wednesday, is due to consider the resumption of domestic flights in the second half of June or first week of July. It is also expected to decide on the reopening of cafés, cinemas, restaurants and sporting clubs.

In the face of calls from the business community the government has shortened the curfew, and according to Saad, “banks have also asked to return to a full eight-hour work day.” Public notary offices are also set to resume a full service in the second half of June.

On Sunday the end of the curfew was moved from 6am to 5am.

Saad also said he was optimistic that Egypt would soon be open to foreign tourists. He noted that most European countries are set to resume flights in the second half of June.

“We have to prepare. A number of global carriers have expressed willingness to resume flights to Egypt in July, and as a result we are considering a gradual resumption of international flights beginning towards the end of this month and in the first half of July.”

Germany said this week that it plans to resume charter flights to Hurghada and seven other Red Sea tourist resorts in Egypt in July.

Saad warned, however, that the opening of public beaches remains difficult. Beaches owned by hotels can adopt social distancing measures which will be impossible to maintain on public beaches in densely populated cities like Alexandria.

Saad revealed the government is also considering a request from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to open mosques for congregational prayers as long as social distancing measures are observed, and worshippers bring their own prayer mats.

“The crisis management group will meet Wednesday and we may see limited Friday prayers resuming the following week,” said Saad. “If that happens, there will also be limited church services.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church said this week it is looking into the possibility of resuming services by the end of June.

A Ministry of Religious Endowments source announced on Sunday that millions of face masks were being sourced to handout to worshippers when they enter mosques, and that the mosques will be sanitised before prayers.

That Saudi Arabia opted to open mosques for prayers this week, and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem resumed prayers, has prompted many to lobby that Egypt should follow suit.

MP Osama Al-Abd, head of parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government has recently come under pressure, from Azharite clerics and imams, to ease restrictions on mosques.

House of Representatives’ Secretary-General Mahmoud Fawzi announced on Sunday that parliament will reconvene on 7 June despite eight MPs testing positive for Covid-19 in one week.

Saad also said the recent surge in coronavirus infections will not stop the holding of the Thanaweya Amma [secondary school] exams, scheduled to begin on 21 June.

“The government is determined the exams are held on time, and has allocated LE500 million to ensure they take place in a safe and virus-free environment,” said Saad.

Unlike Saad, Minister of Information Osama Heikal sounded a more cautious note on reopening measures. In a TV interview on 30 May Heikal said “nobody can say with certainty what will happen in the next few weeks.

“What I can say is the crisis management group will review the situation and make a decision that takes into account the number of infections, hospital conditions and economic developments,” said Heikal.

Egypt has seen a surge in the number of coronavirus infections in recent days. The number of cases reported has more than quadrupled in the last month, jumping from 4,000 on 24 April to 18,000 on 24 May. On 1 June almost 1,400 new cases were reported.

Egypt now tops Arab and African countries in terms of coronavirus deaths.

“While the numbers have been fluctuating between 10 and 20 deaths a day, they are expected to hit more than 50 per day soon,” said head of parliament’s Health Affairs Committee Mohamed Al-Amari.

“The death toll should ring alarm bells among policymakers, and those pushing for a speedy reopening,” said Al-Amari, though he did note “the spike in infections and deaths might be due to people socialising during the holy month of Ramadan.”

Al-Amari believes the spike in infections in the past month is a result of people’s failure to wear face masks and observe social distancing. “The public seems more aware of the importance of these restrictions, so hopefully the peak period will end very soon,” he said.

In some other countries the number of coronavirus infections increased by up to 150,000 in a single month, so by those standards we are not doing all that badly,” says Heikal. “The most important thing is that the numbers do not continue to rise in Egypt. So far, our hospitals have been able to cope.”

Minister of Higher Education Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar sounded a pessimistic note during a videoconference on Monday, warning that coronavirus infections could skyrocket to a million cases if citizens continued to ignore protective measures and restrictions.

“The more citizens abide by the precautionary measures, the faster we get out of this crisis,” said Abdel-Ghaffar. “In a country with 105 million people all kinds of scenarios are possible.”

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli told governors on Monday that though infection numbers are expected to increase in the next two weeks “the government intends to reopen businesses and move the country back to normal.”

“We have to learn to live with this virus,” he said.

Saad said lockdown measures had proved ineffective in stemming the tide of the coronavirus in many countries, and that “the world is now moving to reopening, though with precautions in place.”

“The government,” he said, “has concluded the economic costs of prolonged restrictions outweigh the health costs of increased infections.”

Saad argued that though the number of infections had increased, the numbers who recover from the virus are also growing and “the majority of coronavirus cases show mild symptoms that do not need hospital treatment.”

Mohamed Awad Taggeddin, a former health minister and now the presidential health adviser, said in a press conference on 31 May that Egypt, with 35,000 hospital beds, 5,400 health units in villages and 65 mobile medical caravans, is equipped to contain any surge in infections.

Sherif Wadie, the minister of health’s adviser for emergency and urgent care cases, said only four per cent of coronavirus patients in Egypt die, and the majority of fatalities were either elderly or patients with serious underlying health conditions. “Only eight per cent of coronavirus patients need intensive care and only five per cent receive artificial ventilation, while more than 85 per cent present mild symptoms,” said Wadie.

Wadie, however, said if infections reach 3,000 or more by the end of June, then new measures may have to be adopted.

In a press conference on Sunday, Minister of Health Hala Zayed said: “Egypt has gone from having 18 hospitals treating and screening for coronavirus to 376 hospitals with a capacity of 35,000 beds. We have another 57 laboratories that will be open by the end of the week to provide PCR analyses, in addition to 17 labs that operate under the Ministry of Higher Education.”

She called on citizens to download the Health Egypt app to follow the latest updates on the virus, and noted it has already been downloaded 600,000 times.

On Monday, Prime Minister Madbouli said the government had moved to impose price caps on coronavirus treatment at private hospitals after a plethora of complaints about overcharging.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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