False figures

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020

The government has denied foreign media reports that coronavirus cases in Egypt are likely higher than official figures suggest

False figures
False figures

The Ministry of Health slammed reports published by a number of British and US newspapers surrounding the number of coronavirus cases in Egypt as inaccurate and false. The reports, all published earlier this week, claimed that cases in Egypt are likely higher than official figures suggest.

On Tuesday Egypt’s State Information Service withdrew the accreditation of The Guardian’s correspondent and issued a warning to the New York Times correspondent for publishing “inaccurate estimates and figures” on the number of Coronavirus cases in Egypt.

In a statement on 16 March the ministry said a report published by The Guardian, estimating the number of coronovirus cases in Egypt at more than 19,000, was completely “false”.

Spokesperson of the Health Ministry Khaled Megahed stressed on Monday that the ministry immediately announces confirmed cases “in full transparency in line with international health regulations and standards, and in coordination with the World Health Organisation [WHO]”.

The Guardian cited research by Canadian disease specialists claiming that there is a higher rate of coronavirus infections in Egypt than official figures suggest. “Infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto estimate an outbreak size of 19,310 cases in Egypt,” The Guardian claimed.

Megahed slammed the newspaper’s reliance on “the speculation of a Canadian research” in estimating the number of infected cases in Egypt.

Official figures of the number of coronavirus cases in Egypt stand at 166, with the number of deaths rising to four.

In a TV interview with Al-Hekaya’s Amr Adib on Monday night, Minister of Health Hala Zayed said the research which the newspaper used to publish the 19,000 figure can never be described as scientific. “It is quite difficult to hide anything in Egypt… if the figures are higher than we announce, families of the victims can never hide,” Zayed said, adding that “WHO is closely following up the cases with the Health Ministry and that members of its team in Egypt are with local officials on the field to report all cases detected.”

Zayed emphasised that the WHO monitors all preventive measures taken by the Health Ministry with those infected and their contacts.

Zayed said on the same day that foreign reports on Egypt’s coronavirus were published, the WHO praised Egypt’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus. “I think this should be a good enough response to all foreign reports published about the virus in Egypt this week,” Zayed said.

The cabinet’s media centre also denied the reports on its Facebook page on Monday. The cabinet cited a statement by WHO’s representative in Egypt John Jabbour who told CNN that Egypt and Oman have one of the strongest monitoring systems in the region before praising Egypt’s containment of the virus’ infection rates.

Minister Zayed said some patients test positive after they have recovered. “So the figures are rising and dropping and you can’t give a specific figure on one day,” Zayed said, adding that the major source of the infection comes from European tourists and Egyptians returning from Europe or who were performing umra (minor pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia. The minister said the drastic measures the cabinet recently took, including suspending air flights and closing and sterilising hotels, will stem any higher possible outbreak.

The Guardian claimed that a 60-year-old Egyptian woman was declared dead on 12 March in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. Zayed, however, said the woman was not from Mansoura. “She was living in a small village in Daqahliya governorate and the reason for her death was that her son, who had just returned from Italy, was a carrier of the coronavirus,” Zayed said. Zayed ordered tighter preventive measures in Daqahliya, Damietta, and Minya governorates, where cases have been reported.

MP Ahmed Abaza, deputy chairman of the Arab Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday that the fact that the WHO praised Egypt’s efforts against the virus is the best response to The Guardian’s “lies”.

“This is not the first time The Guardian publishes unprofessional reports about Egypt,” Abaza said, adding that “just like they falsely claimed that the coronavirus cases in Egypt exceeded 19,000, they falsely claimed in 2011 that the wealth of the late president Hosni Mubarak was estimated at $70 billion.”

MP Hussein Gadallah told Al-Ahram Weekly that in 2014 The Guardian claimed that Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had appointed former UK prime minister Tony Blair as his political advisor. The paper claimed the information was given by informed sources but Blair challenged the paper to reveal the name of the sources, Gadallah said.

The New York Times also caused controversy by referring to the unverified Canadian study on the number of coronavirus cases in Egypt. But unlike The Guardian, the NYT reporter, Declan Walsh, tweeted to clarify that the figure 19,000 was an overestimate and that the lower estimate of the coronavirus cases in Egypt was closer to 6,000.

Minister of Health Zayed told TV host Adib that “if cases in Egypt are closer to 6,000, then this should entail that the number of deaths must be higher. So far, only four deaths related to the virus have been reported.” 

Egypt’s daily Al-Ahram cited an unnamed health official on Tuesday as saying that if Egypt has 19,000 or even 6,000 cases, then this should mean that thousands of people were taken to hospitals. “But we have not seen anything like this,” the official said.

A number of social media accounts showed that the unverified Canadian study which was used by the NYT and The Guardian was made by a Canadian, Issac Bogoch, who describes himself as an infectious diseases physician and scientist.

Bogoch, like the NYT correspondent, said on Monday that his study’s figure claiming there are 19,310 coronavirus cases in Egypt was an overestimate and that it was perhaps closer to 6,000.  Bogoch said his study was the result of collaboration with two colleagues, Ash Tuite and David Fishman. Bogoch, however, did not say anything about the contents of the study and how he reached the 19,000 or 6,000 figures.

Zayed said in order to publish a scientific report, it should be previewed by a certified and verified scientific team and published in a respected scientific journal. “But to cite an unverified study by a little known researcher has nothing to do with science or facts,” Zayed said.

Another report published by The Washington Post on 14 March claimed that a Nile Luxor cruiser helped speed up the coronavirus outbreak. The newspaper, which like The Guardian and The New York Times, is highly hostile to Egypt, claimed that hundreds of foreign passengers, including dozens of Americans and Egyptians were potentially exposed to the virus on a ship sailing between mid-February and early March, a dramatic illustration, the paper said, of how, from a single, overlooked infection, the novel coronavirus could swiftly multiply and be carried across the globe. The long Washington Post story suggested that American tourists on the Nile ship contracted the virus in Egypt and that the local health authorities did not take the matter seriously.

But Dina Touta, the tour manager of the American group on the quarantined boat on the Nile, denied on her Facebook account on Sunday what was cited by The Washington Post. “The boat was not the source of the virus. Most infected passengers were French. Fourteen of them apparently came on the boat already carriers of the virus from France and accordingly transmitted it to three Americans and one Indian. Two of the Americans have gone home,” she said. “The minister of tourism was calling me in person every day to check on the passengers and talk to the crew and raise their morale. Tests conducted on all the passengers were supervised by the WHO, and those tested negative went back home Tuesday (10 March) upon the request of their governments.”

The three Western media stories led Bashir Al-Adl, chairman of the Committee on the Defence of Press Independence, to ask the Ministry of Information and the State Information Service to invoke the measures necessary against Western foreign media which have been heavily involved in disseminating and repeating lies about Egypt. “These media outlets have always been interested in publishing unprofessional reports that are based on unverified sources or hostile human rights organisations. And so we urge authorities to stand up to these outlets to defuse their lies and biased reports,” Al-Adl said in a statement on Monday.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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