The usually busy streets of Cairo were exceptionally quiet after the curfew was imposed on 25 March as part of government efforts to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and has now spread to almost 200 countries around the world, killing over 23,500 and affecting 512,701 people and leaving the streets of the busiest cities around the world almost empty.
The Covid-19 virus has so far managed to stop most activities around the world, closing borders and cancelling public gatherings of any kind. Awareness campaigns are everywhere on every TV channel and website, but there are also messages and videos posted on the Internet either offering wrong information or spreading negativity. Some people are constantly keeping an eye on the news, thinking that even running a minor errand could become a nightmare in a form of panic that can have very negative psychological effects.
While government representatives around the world are advising people to stay in their homes, governmental and non-governmental organisations in Egypt have been brainstorming methods of assisting people during this difficult time. The ministry of health is regularly updating its data regarding the pandemic in Egypt on its Facebook page, with a daily report showing numbers of confirmed cases, new deaths, and the numbers of cured people and released patients.
Doctors have established Facebook pages to give people medical tips, like the Esmaouna (Listen to Us) initiative and the Sit at Home and Ask Your Doctor page. Cairo University’s Qasr Al-Aini Hospital has designed a Facebook page to give people medical information about the pandemic and other diseases. One initiative, “Fight not Flight”, was set up by a group of young people with the aim of finding practical solutions to the problems faced by citizens during the coronavirus crisis. They kicked off a two-day hackathon (a competition in software design) that ran on 16-17 March.
The initiator of “Fight not Flight”, Sarah Seif, said the idea was due to CEO Hussein Moheieldin. “The European Union started a fund calling for those who have ideas for dealing with the new coronavirus to send in their ideas. The deadline was on 18 March, and he thought it would be a good idea to stage a hackathon in response. We opened the door for applications on Sunday from 12 noon and closed it at 8 in the evening the next day and received 37 teams of applicants,” she said.
The ideas included initiatives in the fields of medical and healthcare support, damage control, solutions for the continuity of education, well-being, and enhancing lifestyles. “In the first phase, competitors were required to state the problem they wanted to solve and to indicate feasibility,” Seif said. “In the second phase, they were required to conduct research on the problem and how it has been dealt with internationally. The third phase was to find an approach to solving such a problem and demonstrate this in a one-minute video pitch. The fourth phase would be refining their ideas after feedback from the judges,” she added.
Feedback would be offered after each phase, and after the participants had refined their work they would be allowed to go on to the next phase. “In the last phase, they are supposed to make a final pitch and prototype of their idea. Those who were shortlisted were five teams, mostly of people aged between 23 and 30 years old,” she added. There were no special criteria, just that the competitors had to work in a group of two to five and have an idea and be free to work on it.
Five teams won the competition. The first was the Raye7 team represented by Samira Negm, which tackled the problem of reducing infection while people use public transport and offering carpooling as an alternative. Second was the Hodhod team represented by Abeer Al-Sayed in the field of healthcare that aimed at helping to minimise the pressure on the medical sector to help doctors focus on severe cases. Their solution was a unified framework that provides a medical self-reporting mobile application and dashboard to facilitate volunteering activity and ease the provision of services.
The third team was VAX represented by Aya Fayad, also in the field of healthcare. They tackled the problem of the lack of direct medical reassurance by creating a platform for digital medical consultations aiming to aid in the containment of the virus by identifying serious cases and decreasing public anxiety. Fourth was Antivirus, represented by Mohamed Amr in the field of e-commerce. This team tackled the problem of panic-buying, leading to shortages of some products, an increase in prices, and the increase of black-market activity. Its solution was establishing an e-commerce platform that could provide customers with their needs.
The fifth team was INNOVA represented by Miral Bassem in the field of well-being. This looked to help with the problem of fear and anxiety due to the spread of the virus. The team’s solution was in the form of an application that takes personal information from individuals about their daily routines, working hours, free time, interests and hobbies and helps them to construct a proper schedule.
The hackathon was thus not a coding hackathon, but instead was a thought-leadership movement for leaders and innovators in different industries and areas of expertise, helping to bring them together to fight the Covid-19 virus, said a statement. “We are currently working on a second hackathon,” Seif said.
Triumph of Death painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Spanish National Art Museum
PANDEMICS: The new coronavirus pandemic is not the first form of dangerous flu that has spread around the globe.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data, the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century occurred in 2009-2010 and was caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. The 2009 pandemic caused between 100,000 and 400,000 deaths worldwide in the first year alone.
Three influenza pandemics occurred at intervals of several decades during the 20th century, the most severe of which was the Spanish Flu epidemic that is estimated to have caused 20 to 50 million deaths in 1918-1919. Milder pandemics occurred in 1957-1958 in the Asian Flu caused by an H2N2 virus and in 1968 with the Hong Kong Flu caused by an H3N2 virus. These are estimated to have caused one to four million deaths each.
In the past, pandemics that killed millions around the world have included HIV/AIDS, a disease that first appeared in Africa in the 1970s and destroys a patient’s immune system. It was not until this century that modern medications appeared to control this disease that has killed about 35 million people around the world.
In 1855, a third plague pandemic started in China and killed about 15 million people. In 1852, a cholera pandemic that originated in India because of contaminated water killed over a million people. The Black Death (1346-1353) killed about 200 million people around the world, including half the population of Europe at the time. It originated in European port cities from fleas that had fed on the blood of rats, spreading bacteria to humans.
Psychologist Ali Suleiman said that pandemics could have complex psychological effects. “At this point, the cleanliness mania we are witnessing is a good thing because it is a method of eliminating the virus. However, it could become a type of mental illness, what we call obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD] when people can become terrified of going outside their homes or who suffer from the disease but are still able to live normally,” he said.
Pavel Fedotov’s painting shows a death from cholera in the mid-19th century
Today, some people are in denial about the seriousness of Covid-19, he said, meaning that they may not take precautionary instructions seriously enough. “One type are in a state of shock because they believe that if they don’t use sanitisers all the time they will die, although it is enough to wash your hands to avoid infection. This is why they buy more than they need, leaving supermarket shelves empty. They could become obsessed with cleanliness after the pandemic stops spreading,” he said.
“These are people who think the future will be dark, and they may need post-traumatic therapy. They listen to the news about the coronavirus, for example, and the more they listen to it, the worse their condition becomes. These are the types of people who have a psychological disposition or susceptibility to disease, and in the state of fear of a pandemic they could become mentally ill,” Suleiman added.
Such mental disorders could be contagious in the same family, as a child may imitate his parents with OCD and need family therapy to become mentally stable again. Other people might feel physical pain, with some elderly people even feeling flu symptoms because they saw on the television that the elderly are vulnerable to the new coronavirus. “They could start to imagine that no one cares about them,” Suleiman said.
He contrasted such people to others who may be indifferent and live as if there was no pandemic and continue to meet for social gatherings. “These people should be controlled by law, as they potentially not only harming themselves but also others,” he added.
He gave some tips on how people could calm down and shift pessimistic thoughts to optimistic ones. “Anyone who has a good idea to help during the crisis should tell the government about it. There is a group of psychologists who offer consultations via the Internet to anyone who needs them to help them to overcome the psychological effects of the coronavirus crisis, for example, and similar services are offered by other doctors in other medical fields,” Suleiman said.
People should remember that the current crisis is an international one and that they are not alone. “People should be especially careful about circulating videos to others, as there is a risk they may be spreading incorrect information about the disease and scaring other people,” he said. “Either a person writes something that will be beneficial to others or writes nothing at all. People should be encouraged to stay at home for their own safety and not out of fear,” he added.
“We need to think logically when it comes to dealing with the new coronavirus. We need to know information about the disease, how it can spread, how to avoid being infected, and how to safeguard ourselves from it. We need to teach people how to protect themselves from the disease and then people will not be afraid. This way we will decrease emotional overreactions, allowing people to calm down and think logically about the disease.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly