A medical staff member wears a protective mask amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) (Reuters)
The increase in the number of coronavirus cases in Egypt has brought with it two problems: the soaring price of disinfectants and the disappearance of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, from pharmacy shelves.
In the past two days, the price of disinfectants and hand sanitisers — especially from popular imported brands like Dettol and Clorex — has doubled. Social media users have shared screenshots showing that the price of “all-in-one” disinfectant sprays jumped from EGP 200 to EGP 800 in 24 hours both online and in stores and pharmacies.
Despite the soaring prices, the disinfectants are still disappearing because of high demand by concerned citizens. Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, whether in 75 percent or 90 percent concentration, has become a rare commodity in various areas in Cairo and Giza, with a price tag that has reportedly jumped from EGP 15 to EGP 100, or even EGP 125 for small bottles.
Local ethyl alcohol is regarded as a cheap and effective alternative to disinfectants and hand sanitisers by foreign brands.
Ahram Online found on Monday and Tuesday that ethanol had disappeared from many pharmacies in Mohandessin, Agouza and Zamalek, including at big chain pharmacies.
Even at El-Saaf Pharmacy in Downtown Cairo, to where locals often turn if there is any shortage in medicines, the pharmacist told Ahram Online from behind a surgical mask that ethanol was not available.
Next, Ahram Online ventured to Qasr Al-Aini Street in Downtown Cairo, a street lined with outlets for medical supplies, given its proximity to Qasr Al-Aini Hospital. Mr Mohab, a medical supplies shopkeeper, told Ahram Online that there was a shortage of ethanol due to high demand that started to pick up last week.
“Medical ethanol at 90 percent concentration was sold for EGP 40 or EGP 45 maximum. But its price began to rise as demand increased. It reached EGP 65 one day and then EGP 75 the next. Now, one litre of medicinal ethanol is sold for EGP 200,” he told Ahram Online, adding that ethanol is manufactured in Egypt.
“Medicinal alcohol is used as an ingredient in every type of disinfectant. It is logical that that there is high demand for it now,” Mohab added, explaining that even some local disinfectants have jumped from EGP 70 to EGP 700 per litre.
“Surgical mask prices have also soared,” a customer buying masks from Qasr Al-Aini Street told Ahram Online.
The customer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online that before the coronavirus pandemic, a full box of 50 locally made masks sold for EGP 50, but it now sells for EGP 250.
Imported 3M medical masks, which are considered the best, sold for EGP 100, but have now disappeared from the market.
As people complain about soaring prices, the supply directorate at the Ministry of Interior is making daily checks at shops and pharmacies to see if there is tampering with official prices.
“The patrols have already closed down two or three pharmacies and shops in the past two days,” Mr Mohab told Ahram Online.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued two decisions banning the export of surgical masks and disinfectants as well as medical alcohol for three months effective immediately. The two decisions were taken after “it was noticed that a large quantity of disinfectants, alcohol and surgical masks were exported abroad, which will affect the local market negatively,” the ministry said in a statement.
Despite official calls for people to stay at home as much possible and maintain social distance for their own safety, Downtown Cairo street vendors are keeping their businesses running and streets are crowded as usual.
Nonetheless, commuters heading to metro stations or even people walking in the streets, began to wear surgical masks, and some went a further in wearing latex gloves, or even winter wool gloves.