Twenty-three people were arrested on Saturday after trying to prevent the burial of the body of a female doctor who died from the coronavirus. Sonia Aref, 64, who tested positive for the virus upon her return from Saudi Arabia, passed away last week in an isolation hospital in the canal city of Ismailia.
Upon their arrival to bury her body in her hometown cemetery in Daqahliya village, the family was met by hundreds of people protesting against the body’s burial, fearing infection. They threw rocks at the ambulance carrying the body and threatened to set fire to the cemetery if the body was buried there.
After four hours of negotiations and the mediation of health affairs officers who tried to allay the fears of the villagers and assure them that there was no possible way that the body could infect people, police still had to fire tear gas to break up the protest and allow the family to bury the body.
The video of the protests sparked a wave of anger among Egyptians who called the crowd “inhumane”.
Egypt’s Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli phoned Aref’s husband to offer his condolences and deplore the “disgraceful” attempts by locals to prevent her burial.
“I speak to you as an Egyptian citizen… to express my condolences and apologise on behalf of the Egyptian people for the disgraceful behaviour of some of the Shobra Al-Bahw village residents,” Madbouli told the husband, according to a cabinet statement.
However, Aref’s case was not the first, and probably won’t be the last.
Last week, a similar scene took place in Beheira governorate. Clashes between families and police erupted in Borollos village after families refused to let a doctor bury his father in the family’s private cemetery in Kafr Al-Dawar. According to an eyewitness, the families threw stones at police officers, leaving one with a severe face injury.
The over 90-year-old man caught the virus from his son, a doctor at Al-Agami quarantine hospital in Alexandria. When the family arrived to bury the man a few hours before the 8pm night-time nationwide curfew, they came upon dozens of angry families living nearby the cemeteries, refusing to let the body be buried in the village, again fearing infection.
To deal with the problem, MP Thoraya Al-Sheikh said she, with the help of businessmen, would purchase two mega land plots to turn them into public cemeteries dedicated to Covid-19 bodies. However, a few days later, Al-Sheikh said the deal fell apart after the refusal of the land owners to sell the plot when they discovered what the plan entailed.
The burials of coronavirus victims are often being held in secret in Egypt under police supervision with the attendance of only close family members.
The coronavirus stigma is attached not only to those who die from the virus but doctors who treat the victims.
Dina Abdel-Salam, a doctor at one fever hospital in Ismailia, posted a video on her Facebook page last week stating that she was verbally assaulted by her neighbours who gathered under her balcony demanding that she leave the house because she was deemed a threat to their health.
“You will infect us. Do you not care about our health or that of our children?” they angrily screamed at her.
The young doctor called the police for fear of being assaulted.
Mohamed Ahmed is another doctor who was threatened by his neighbours with knives while demanding he leave the building where he lives with his elderly parents.
“It started with yelling and angry calls for me to immediately leave the house. When I started answering back that this was nonsense, they gathered at the staircase holding sticks and knives and accused me of bringing death to them,” Ahmed wrote on his Facebook page.
Despite writing that the situation was temporarily solved with the intervention of other neighbours, Ahmed wrote, “I know it will happen again. And I’m not willing to jeopardise my safety as well as my family’s for the sake of such disrespectful people.”
“Fear is an element that controls people’s actions, driving them into inhumane, unacceptable actions,” Ayman Ammar, a psychiatry consultant, told Al-Ahram. “However, in such cases it is combined with an even more overwhelming factor: ignorance.
“Fear is not the only element. We have it combined with ignorance, which brings out the worst in people,” Ammar said.
Lamise Al-Dessouki, an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Department of Psychology, seconds Ammar’s opinion. “Intense fear can put people into survival mode where they become focused on avoiding any potential threat,” Al-Dessouki said. “In some cases, this might result in making decisions that they would not normally make. For example, they might behave in illogical ways just to avoid the threat.”
After Aref’s burial incident, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the world’s most prestigious seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said it was forbidden in Islam to prevent the burial of any dead body.
Al-Tayeb said all acts of bullying and mockery of victims of the coronavirus are “dangerous” and “totally unacceptable”.
“I was sorry to see some people refuse to receive the corpses of those who passed away from this virus or refuse to allow them to be buried in their own cemeteries,” Al-Tayeb said in a televised speech on Sunday evening.
“This is religiously forbidden and morally and humanly criminalised,” he said, adding that Islamic Sharia law calls for honouring the dead by quickly burying them.
Ammar believes that having a religious, emotional approach to the topic might play an effective factor in changing people’s minds when it comes to the Covid-19 stigma.
“All of these people who were against the burial of the body would have gone to the Friday prayer if it was still being held. So having a religious figure talking about the topic and criticising such actions is one of the most effective tools in dealing with this problem.”
Mosques and churches have been shut down across Egypt because of the pandemic.
Al-Desouki believes that authorities should be playing a more effective role in dispelling people’s fears.
Failure to acknowledge the panic will only make it worse, particularly since Covid-19 is an ongoing situation, she said. “It’s not something that will end overnight and is affecting the entire world, so people need to face it.”
She stressed the importance of raising people’s awareness regarding the virus itself, which will make them more aware of the ways of infection.
“Psychology research shows that making people afraid is an effective way to change their behaviour, but only if they are also given useful information,” Al-Dessouki said. “In other words, just telling people that the virus will kill them is not enough to make them stay home. However, giving people detailed information about the virus, such as how it spreads, and what they can do to prevent its spread, could be effective. That way, people are afraid, but feel like they can still do something.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Virus phobia