Residents of Al-Hayatem, a village in Gharbiya governorate, some 90km north of Cairo, are banned from leaving the area and authorities have denied entry into the village in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus after the detection of several cases there. However, both the locals and officials have denied reports the village is home to a massive outbreak.
Al-Hayatem is one of many villages that have been isolated in 10 governorates until Saturday including the Red Sea, Minya, Menounfiya and Port Said, in a bid to stop any possible spread of coronavirus, according to health ministry spokesperson Khaled Megahed.
Villagers no longer go to work outside the town since security forces closed the three entrances to the village in a precautionary measure that the provincial governor says is meant to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
But residents have dismissed media reports that the village, home to an estimated 40,000 residents, is home to a massive cluster of cases or that all families are isolated at home.
A member of health teams during a campaign in Al-Hayatem village, north of Cairo (Photo: Ahram Arabic)
The new restrictions were imposed after the first case of a 40-year-old staff member at a restaurant tested positive for the virus on Friday following days of self-isolation at home after experiencing some symptoms, one of the man’s neighbours told Ahram Online by phone. Ten of his family members and neighbours were then tested positive when authorities conducted tests earlier this week for people the patient had come in contact with, Mona El-Khouly told Ahram Online.
“They are now in isolation hospitals and their condition is improving. We are constantly in contact with them,” she said.
On Wednesday evening, Tarek Rahmy, the governor of Gharbiya confirmed “several” cases were detected for the restaurant worker and those who came in contact with him, but he declined to specify the number of cases, saying it is the responsibility of the health ministry.
He said residents were not placed under home quarantine but are only not allowed to leave the village that has been off-limits since late Monday.
“There is no pandemic in the village that should cause worry,” he said. “The number of cases are not high... Isolating the village is only a precautionary measure so we can closely follow up on residents and keep them under observation. Having them in one place makes it easy to follow [their condition] and track any suspected cases.”
Members of health teams during a campaign in Al-Hayatem, north of Cairo (Photo: Ahram Arabic)
The governor affirmed no new cases have been detected in recent days, adding that tests on 20 village residents on Wednesday turned out negative.
Civil Defence vehicles carried out sterilisation operations of the whole village six times, he said. Fresh food commodities and staple goods including grocery and medicines provided to the village are sufficient to cover residents’ needs for the upcoming 15 days, the governor said.
“Health ministry teams advised residents to stay at home and voluntarily lengthen curfew times to help track suspected cases,” he added
Al-Hayatem is the only village in Gharbiya that has been placed under isolation, according to the governor.
“Exaggeration” plays a part
Mohamed El-Baradi, a townsman of Al-Hayatem, affirmed to Ahram Online that only 10 people in the village were infected. They were taken to quarantine hospitals in Alexandria and Matrouh governorates and most of them are now in a stable condition, he added.
Daily life is proceeding normally in the village, he stated, and calm prevails in its streets by the time the curfew goes into effect at 7pm.
Since 25 March, a nationwide night-time curfew has been imposed daily from 7pm to 6am as part of drastic steps to contain the spread of the virus. It is scheduled to remain in place until 7 April.
“People go to work in the village and perform their everyday activities normally before the curfew time in most parts of the village,” El-Baradi said.
But the majority of village residents are upset because of the rumours of the coronavirus outbreak in their village and have declined aid from outside, he added.
El-Baradi, who is also the admin of one of the village’s most popular Facebook groups, says social media and other news reports are “exaggerating” in their portrayal of the situation in the village, which he described as totally “normal and under control.”
“To a great extent, everything is going normally in our village, but the residents are not allowed to leave the village and outsiders are not allowed to pass security checkpoints deployed at the village’s entrances,” he said.
Security forces shutting down an entrance to the village of Al-Hayatem (Photo: Ahram Arabic)
Ahmed Beshier, another Al-Hayatem resident, said a number of residents gathered in front of the police station in the village on Wednesday evening in rejection of aid, presented to them mostly by local MPs.
Online footage showed dozens of people marching in the village’s narrow streets, defying social-distancing measures as they shouted slogans demanding easing restrictions imposed on the village and expressing rejection of aid.
“We don’t need anything, and the residents are in complete solidarity to provide assistance to each other if needed,” Beshier said, urging social media users to stop sharing “rumours” about his village.
"Village residents felt humiliated for being offered aid, which is why they refused help and protested,” said resident El-Khouly.
The local governor said that businessmen have donated 1,500 boxes of food commodities in recent days.
Stigma against residents of the village over the virus appears to be another reason for disappointment.
“The residents are upset because of the way they are viewed by other village residents, treating them as outcasts,” El-Khouly lamented.
Egypt has so far recorded 779 coronavirus cases nationwide, with the death toll standing at 52. Officials have repeatedly sought to reassure the public that they are able to control the virus.
But some residents are unhappy with the restrictions and tried to break the imposed regulations.
One man managed to sneak into farmlands in the village to go to his work at a textile firm outside the village before he was later brought back. The governor said authorities examined him when he returned, and he tested negative for the virus.
The first coronavirus case in Egypt was detected on 14 February, almost two months after the virus first had surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Egypt has grounded international flights until mid-April as part of strict measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, but the country has since operated several exceptional flights to bring home nationals stranded overseas provided that they undergo a 28-day quarantine.
Authorities have also shut down cinemas, restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs, suspended classes at schools and universities and shut mosques and churches.