Coronavirus: Unaffordable social distancing

Nada Zaki , Thursday 26 Mar 2020

The government wants Egyptians to practise social distancing and stay home. Al-Ahram Weekly looks at how the two are working

Unaffordable social distancing
Not everyone can afford to stay home

Egypt has imposed a series of measures to rein in the spread of the coronavirus, including suspending air traffic, closing schools and universities and shutting malls and cafés starting from 7pm. It has also banned gatherings for prayers in mosques and churches.

By Monday, Egypt’s death toll from the coronavirus was 19 and 366 infected.

Many Egyptians, overwhelmed by fear of the virus, are willing to go to the next level, including social distancing, a term that has become world famous. But some cannot afford to stay at home too long.

Heba Al-Beheiri, a 30-year-old engineer, is religiously following social distancing and hygiene tips.

“My family and I have not left home for 10 days except to buy groceries. We wash our hands every 10 minutes, alcohol has become our new best friend, and disinfecting the house and food has become a daily pastime,” Al-Beheiri told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Trying to see the bright side, the mother of two always highlights the positives of staying at home with her 10-year-old daughter and six-year-old son.

“At least I know that I’m now freely practising my truly ultimate passion: constant eating,” Al-Beheiri giggled. “But the truth is, I’m exhausted and emotionally drained just like millions of others. I stopped going to my parents even though we live in the same building. I don’t know what else I can do to save my life and my children’s.”

The civil engineer was among those who decided to stay at home following a decision by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli to give mothers of school-aged children fully paid leave after schools were suspended for two weeks.

Despite the efforts to slow the spread of the virus, Al-Beheiri believes that her effort is going in vain, as thousands of others are not following the government’s instructions.

“I feel like we are all paying for the mistakes of others and no matter how much we try to raise the awareness of the circle surrounding us, it is like talking to ourselves,” Al-Beheiri angrily commented.

But not everybody who is not abiding by the new rules does so out of carelessness. Many find home quarantine a luxury they cannot afford. Sixty-two-year-old Hanem Mohamed is one.

Working as a cleaning lady, Mohamed, 57, does not have a fixed source of income every month, leaving her constantly at risk of having no money to pay the rent or buy food essentials. As the bread winner of her family, she finds herself with no option but to keep following her “normal life routine”.

However, for the past two weeks the families who she works for have not been calling her for fear she might transfer the virus to them since she goes to work on crowded public transportation.

Mohamed says that some of her customers were generous enough to offer to send her money, despite not working. “Thank God, I am in better shape than many of my friends who are now jobless and have no source of income.”

Many charities are adopting initiatives to compensate those who lost their jobs or a huge part of their income due to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the government has yet to reveal its plan to help those most affected.

Mohamed says she tries to follow hygiene instructions as much as possible, “but there is no available masks in any of the pharmacies surrounding poor neighbourhoods in Giza, and the alcohol is just too expensive for us to get. A small bottle is now LE30.”

Despite Madbouli’s decision to grant more authority to the Consumer Protection Agency to monitor markets and limit price gouging, Mohamed said this was not the case where she lives, with thousands of others who work in hand-to-mouth jobs.

“People are running out of money, and stores are increasing the price of commodities massively. The cost of all regular flu medicines almost doubled because of the virus,” she added.

Amr Al-Deeb, 27, believes that the virus does not pose such a huge threat to people’s lives the way the media are portraying it.

“Away from the tragedy that every death brings on the screen, if you analytically look at the number of deaths and the total number of patients, you’d logically see it is just a normal flu,” Al-Deeb said calmly.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated at the beginning of March that the coronavirus’ mortality rate was 3.4 per cent, a number that Al-Deeb finds not alarmingly high. “Compare it to something like the Spanish Flu that killed almost 500 million people. That was a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Covid-19 is not that menacing,” he added.

Following the same path is Ahmed Radwan, 26, who lives in Italy, the country where the virus has killed the most people.

Radwan believes that the coronavirus is nothing more than a flu virus, however, due to worldwide panic, it has attracted more attention than it should have.

“I live in one of the most affected cities near Milan. The number of infections increases on a daily basis but we never hear about those who have recovered or any of their stories,” he said.

Radwan asks that if the recovery rate reaches 87 per cent “how come we never see any of these thousands of people globally?”

He said that from research, scientists suggest the virus itself is not so deadly and that pre-existing health conditions contribute more to the deaths.

“When you put the sentence that way, the virus does not seem as scary as it is portrayed in media outlets. However, we never see that version of the story.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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