After weeks of dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak as onlookers, Egyptians suddenly found themselves in the middle of the storm this week with the government announcing several strict precautionary measures to prevent its spread.
Schools, universities, and educational centres were closed for two weeks as part of the country’s plans to deal with any possible repercussions of the new coronavirus, and all sports activities were suspended for the same period.
More drastic measures followed throughout the week, including a decision to suspend flights altogether with the outside world starting on 19 March and threats of stricter rules on movement should people not restrict their movements.
“Following the cabinet’s decisions on Saturday to close schools for two weeks, I became more aware of the seriousness of the situation. My own hygiene and that of everyone else is important for the safety of everyone,” Ahmed Yehia, public-relations manager at a private university in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Awareness of the dangers of Covid-19 has been on the rise, with messages delivered through regular media and even more so through social media, including on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Changing habits is often part of the content of these messages, but this remains something that everybody has to work on.
Yehia, an employee in his late 30s, recounts that while at the office at the outset of the week, he felt guilty after shaking hands with several clients. “What if any of them were infected, I kept telling myself. However, by the end of a long day I had forgotten,” he said.
He was starkly reminded again when in the evening he went to do some shopping and saw crowds doing “doomsday” shopping. “Most of the shelves were empty of basic food products,” he said, adding that he then started panic-buying as well.
“The lack of shopping carts and scenes of empty shelves and panic-buying led me to do the same,” said Essam, another Cairo resident, adding that he had spent almost double the amount he usually spends on household shopping.
“I began to search for other products that I don’t usually buy to compensate for the lack of food products that I usually buy,” he added.
Egypt’s Supply Minister Ali Moselhi said there was no reason to panic because neither supermarkets nor pharmacies would close, and there was plenty of food available for purchase.
“The strategic reserve for food commodities is sufficient for several months. Our stocks of wheat and sugar are sufficient for more than four months, and the reserve of raw edible oil is sufficient for more than three-and-a-half months, in addition to the quantities produced and available in the markets. We have enough rice supplies for five months,” the minister stated.
The panic was not just about food products, but also masks, disinfectants and sanitisers, however. “The most popular products nowadays are antiseptics, hand sanitisers, gloves, and masks,” Mahmoud Helmi, branch manager of a pharmacy chain located in Giza, told the Weekly.
Due to the demand, many of these items have not only increased in price but are also disappearing from the shelves.
“The price of one litre of imported hand disinfectant has more than doubled from LE85 to LE180, while the locally produced alternative has risen above LE120 from LE60,” Helmi said, adding that masks were out of stock altogether.
Smaller sizes of locally produced antiseptic products, which used to range from LE5 to LE10, have now become LE10 to LE50.
Regarding masks, Abdel-Meguid Mamdouh, a pharmacist in Nasr City, confirmed the shortage of masks in the market and said the most effective N95 mask had almost reached LE100 in price from less than LE20 a few weeks ago, while a pack of regular masks was being sold for LE250 instead of LE40.
“Any attempts to hoard commodities and create crises in the market will be dealt with firmly,” Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said in a press conference on Monday. The Consumer Protection Agency urged citizens to report anyone who raises prices on its hotline 19588 or through its e-mail at [email protected]
On social media platforms, through which the majority of people exchange experiences and alternative home-made recipes for unavailable products, experts proposed an old-fashioned locally produced cologne “as an alternative to alcohol disinfectants”.
But even that did not escape the price rises, with its price rising more than five times from LE15 to LE85.
Madbouli called on everyone to avoid gatherings, stressing the importance of attention to hygiene, public health, and the guidelines for the prevention of the spread of the new coronavirus.
“I have begun to wear a mask when getting on public transport, but only 10 to 20 per cent of commuters do the same,” Nabila Hamdi, a 43-year-old employee, said. “I do what I am supposed to do, but others look at me as if I were a weirdo,” she said, adding that “the awareness of citizens is not enough.”
Cairo resident Manal Mohamed said she knew most of the prevention measures but still could not always apply them. “I am not used to using non-contact methods of greeting, and I always forget and sometimes handshake or even kiss while greeting,” she said. Mohamed also said she could forget and unintentionally touch her face after touching surfaces.
Among the basic protective measures against the new coronavirus, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), are washing the hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water, maintaining social distancing of at least one metre, and avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth while in public.
In addition, the WHO urged everyone to follow good respiratory hygiene.
The Health Ministry has launched a new Arabic site at www.care.gov.eg that outlines the necessary precautionary measures and also the latest information about the new coronavirus outbreak in Egypt.
It urges anyone presenting with a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing to call one of its two hotlines at 105 or 15335.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly