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Learning to live with the virus

The government plans to reopen the economy after Ramadan despite the mounting number of coronavirus infections and deaths

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 14 May 2020
Learning to live with the virus
A worker stands on a building under construction in the New Administrative Capital (photo: Reuters)
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The government of Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli has signalled it will begin reopening the economy at the end of Ramadan.

“Unless the wheels of production start turning very soon everyone in Egypt will have to live with the consequences for a long, long time,” said Madbouli. “The experience of many countries shows a full lockdown can push national economies to the verge of collapse.”

Madbouli said the best strategy for the coming period is to reopen while simultaneously observing restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

“Though the numbers of infections have increased they are still under control. By the end of Ramadan we will announce reopening measures, but also the punishments that will be incurred for violating necessary restrictions,” said Madbouli.

Finance Minister Mohamed Maait also hinted that the economy can no longer tolerate the partial lockdown measures currently in force.

“The state treasury lost a great part of its revenues last month. To continue along the same lines would mean the economy would carry on haemorrhaging and thousands of people would lose their jobs,” said Maait.

Minister of Information Osama Heikal told the media that the government had concluded that Egypt must coexist with Covid-19.

“Lockdowns, or any other protective and precautionary measures, are useless unless the public behaves responsibly, learns to coexist with the virus and joins forces with the government in fighting it.”

Ahmed El-Sigini, head of parliament’s Local Administration Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “full or partial lockdown measures in countries across the world have proved ineffective in stemming the tide of the virus.”

The question now being asked around the world is how economic damage can be best contained by opening economies, while simultaneously keeping essential restrictions in place.

The Madbouli government began answering that question last week. Following a cabinet meeting on 3 May, Madbouli announced “the return of domestic tourism”, but with restrictions in place. Beginning on 15 May hotels, resorts and tourist villages will be allowed to receive guests, but the occupancy rate will be limited to 25 per cent. Depending on how things go, the quota could be relaxed to 50 per cent by June.

Hamdi Al-Shami, a former deputy minister of tourism, said the adoption of even a partial lockdown this summer will be disastrous for the tourism sector.

Al-Shami expects the decision on domestic tourism to be followed by others loosening restrictions on local industry.

“I think the reopening decision is to some extent being pushed by pressure from associations of businessmen, chambers of commerce and the General Federation of Egyptian Industries. They have all warned that without some movement businesses will be forced to close down, or lay-off employees.”

Madbouli said on 9 May that industry, the service sector and infrastructure projects will all return to work.

Informed sources believe the post-Ramadan measures will also include a shortening of the curfew.

“Following the Eid the curfew will probably be reduced to 11pm to 6am,” says MP Mustafa Bakri.

“With shops and businesses allowed to open until 10pm, the situation will be almost back to normal. Even restaurants, cafés and cafeterias will be allowed to open under certain conditions.”

Bakri points out that “some countries, like Germany, have even decided to open schools again.”

Al-Sigini argues that the decision “to boost domestic tourism” implies, by extension, a shortening of the curfew.

“You can’t say people can go to hotels in Hurghada, Sharm El-Sheikh and Alexandria and then not allow them to move freely,” he said.

Following a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Sunday, Finance Minister Mohamed Maait said the government would consider “austerity measures” should the crisis extend beyond 1 July. In such a scenario, he said the government would be forced to revise expenditure items to guarantee the Ministry of Finance can meet its obligations. Maait made no mention that a lockdown might be on the cards.

Atef Makhalef, a member of parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee, said any austerity measures remained just “a possibility” at this stage.

“I think that what the finance minister wanted to say is that the government needs to increase its revenues and this will come through reopening the economy, not through lockdown. But if the crisis persists for a longer period, the government might opt for austerity as a last-ditch measure. The direction in which all the roads seem to be heading is one where we must coexist with the virus.”

The number of infections and deaths in Egypt has grown throughout Ramadan, which began on 24 April. The number of reported infections has increased from 4,092 on 24 April to 9,746 on 11 May, and exceeded 10,000 this week. Egypt has the highest number of infections among Arab countries, only trailing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. More alarmingly, Egypt tops Arab League tables in terms of fatalities, having overtaken Algeria. On 11 May Egypt had reported 533 deaths, compared to 510 in Algeria.

The figures have led some MPs to ask for a full lockdown during the coming two weeks. “A quick reopening could lead to a spike in infections and deaths,” said MP Fayez Barakat.

Suleiman Wahdan, deputy parliament speaker, has also called upon the government to impose a full two-week lockdown, including the last week of Ramadan and the Eid Al-Fitr holiday week. “These two weeks will be a golden opportunity to contain the coronavirus, and during this period the state should make sure that highways to traffic between governorates are closed and that people stay at home,” said Suleiman, arguing that “a gradual opening  under stringent anti-virus restrictions should come only after the two-week lockdown.”

Some members of the Syndicate of Doctors, including the head of the Cairo branch Sherine Ghalib, have also been recommending a complete lockdown during the last week of Ramadan and the Eid week.

Government officials, however, insist the increase in infections and deaths had been expected. Minister of Health Hala Zayed hinted in a statement on 8 May that Ramadan gatherings could be driving the increase. “I urge citizens to change their behaviour in the remaining weeks of Ramadan and during the Eid Al-Fitr holiday,” said Zayed.

“Citizens should keep shopping to a minimum, avoid crowds and wear face masks.”

On 9 May Zayed said the Ministry of Health was in the process of revising coronavirus treatment protocols, and announced that a shipment of the drug Remdesivir, which was recently endorsed by the US Food and Drug Association (FDA), had been ordered.

Mohamed Awad Taggeddin, a former health minister and now a presidential adviser, said the increased number of infections being reported was simply a result of more people being tested.

“More than 100,000 tests were conducted. The more you test, the more you detect infection,” said Tageddin, also noting that “the numbers of patients fully recovering have also significantly increased, reaching 97 on Monday. Tageddin, however, said on TV that a full lockdown in the next two weeks should remain an option on the table and ahead of any reopening measures.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 

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