Coronavirus: Upping the ante

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 26 Mar 2020

Egypt is rolling up its sleeves to contain the spread of the coronavirus

Al-Sisi inspecting the Armed Forces’ sanitation equipment

On 24 March and in the framework of its ongoing drive to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the Egyptian government announced a package of precautionary measures in line with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s directives to prioritise the health of the Egyptian people above all other considerations, according to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli speaking at a press conference.

Foremost among the measures are an 11-hour curfew from 7pm to 6am that started on Wednesday 25 March, a reduction in the working week for commercial establishments to five days with closures on Fridays and Saturdays, the busiest shopping days, the closure of all recreational spaces such as clubs and cafés, restricting restaurant services to home delivery, and suspending government services apart from those related to healthcare.

Violators of these measures will be subject to relevant provisions under the emergency law.

The measures are in response to mounting demands aired in the press and on social media for a curfew because people have in some cases continued to disregard public-health warnings and met in large gatherings. Although some anticipated a stricter curfew complete with a military deployment, official clarifications indicate that the government continues to prefer an incremental approach.

“Each stage will be tougher than the previous one,” Madbouli said, adding that the decisions will depend on the rate of the virus’ spread and the ability to contain it.

On 14 January, parliament approved an extension of the nationwide state of emergency for another three months from 27 January to 27 March 2020. Under the emergency law, “the Armed Forces and the national police shall take all necessary measures to confront the dangers and financing of terrorism, to safeguard security throughout the country, to protect private and public property, and to protect the lives of the people.”

In the light of provisions pertaining to the delegation of executive responsibilities under the emergency law, the president will likely take the helm of decision-making in the fight against Covid-19.

According to Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of national security affairs at the Nasser Higher Military Academy in Cairo, the army is the best institution to turn to in a crisis of this nature. Already a couple of weeks ago, the army had begun to undertake tasks in military and civilian establishments to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

“It will continue to perform this role and expand on it as needed, as determined by the political leadership responsible for managing this crisis,” Qashqoush said. “A current priority is to supply and distribute disinfectants and equipment, which has necessitated changes in the production lines at the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation and firms such as Al-Nasr for Intermediate Chemicals, recently visited by the Armed Forces chief of staff to ensure that they are ready to serve this purpose.”

He added that the army’s Public Services Authority has been instrumental in making necessary supplies available to the public.

On Sunday, the army announced the deaths of two high-ranking officers, Major General Khaled Shaltout, director of the Water Department at the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, and Major General Shafie Abdel-Halim Dawoud, director of the Major Projects Department at the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, as a result of infection with the Covid-19 virus. Both had been infected while performing their duties in the framework of the sweeping sterilisation and disinfection campaigns being carried out by the Armed Forces.

“The Water Department and the Major Projects Department have been out there in the streets from day one of the crisis,” Qashqoush said, stressing that the army has instituted health safeguards within the Armed Forces.

According to Gamal Abdel-Gawad, director of the Egyptian Programme at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank, the steps the government have taken so far are appropriate. “The main criterion is the number of cases exposed to infection,” he said, adding that the measures were proportional to the rate of the spread of the virus.

 He said that indexes had confirmed that official reporting on Covid-19 infections had been credible. “One gauge is cases of death from coronavirus infection. Such things can’t be hidden. If there had been a mistake in the number of reported infections, the hospitals’ critical and intensive-care facilities would have been overwhelmed, which hasn’t happened,” Abdel-Gawad said.

He acknowledged that previous governments had built up a legacy of inaccurate reporting during crises, however. But he said this did not apply to the current government, which has been very credible in its approach to the crisis and the measures it has taken.

As for the major challenges in combating the crisis over the spread of Covid-19, Abdel-Gawad said that it was important to look at the situation in terms of two sectors. One was the public sector, which was well-organised and could therefore be controlled and included the civil service and other public-sector organisations.

The second was the private sector and the public at large in urban and rural settings. Here, mandatory measures were needed in order to control behaviour, with some groups even being recalcitrant by nature. He pointed to the case of a small demonstration in Alexandria that had been triggered by provocative messages broadcast by anti-regime channels.

“This type of sporadic behaviour will necessitate some deterrents or other forms of discipline,” Abdel-Gawad said, stressing that “such types of reckless behaviour can be found everywhere in the world” and citing criticisms levelled by the mayor of New York in the US against some individuals in the city and the fact that the authorities in Florida had been forced to close down beaches because people had not listened to the advice of the health authorities.

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

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