Egypt: Striking the right balance

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 19 Apr 2020

While working to keep the pandemic under control, the government must also juggle with managing Egypt’s economic and political interests

WORKERS at the Egyptian Food Bank, a non-governmental organisation, prepare cartons with foodstuffs to distribute among people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis. Other NGOs are also lending a hand, while the government is disbursing LE500 monthly grants to 1.5 million non-standard workers. (photo: AFP)

For the first time in over a century the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church will not be leading the traditional large mass to celebrate Easter. Instead, Pope Tawadros II will be leading a low-profile service with a handful of bishops at a monastery on the outskirts of Alexandria.

The service will be aired on TV and radio channels, but it will not be followed by the usual celebrations. In press statements Pope Tawadros said it is necessary to avoid large gatherings because of Covid-19.

This year, Coptic Easter comes in the middle of what the Ministry of Health has called the “make-or-break three weeks” in dealing with the new coronavirus.

Medical sources expect the number of positive cases in Egypt to be between 2,500 and 3,000 by the beginning of the coming week.

“Luckily, we are not seeing a devastating outbreak but we still cannot take the figures lightly,” said one government medical adviser.

Medical sources have been realistic about the inevitability of infections increasing over the last three weeks but now argue that the 1,000 rise in cases in the last five days indicates alarm.

They say social distancing measures, which were well-observed for the first 10 days, are being less well-observed now as the public begins to relax its vigilance.

According to the same sources, Minister of Health Hala Zayed has told the cabinet of the concerns she shares with her scientific and medical teams about a sudden increase in the numbers if people continue to overlook the safety guidelines as they have done during the last few days.

On Monday, pictures of hundreds of citizens rushing to crowded markets in Cairo and other governorates went viral across social media. The images prompted questions about the wisdom of the government’s decision to shorten the daily 7pm to 6am curfew introduced three weeks ago by an hour.

The decision to start the curfew at 8pm rather than 7pm was made to accommodate the concerns of building contractors and other businesses, says an informed source.

“Contractors told the prime minister that if companies were to accommodate the wish of the government to work full force on construction projects, then the authorities needed to shorten the curfew to allow workers to complete their hours and get back home in time,” says a project manager at a leading construction company.

The government and leading private sector figures agree that the economy has to be kept ticking over to mitigate against the effects of slower growth rates.

In press statements this week, Minister of Planning Hala Al-Said said projections of a six per cent growth rate have been downgraded to four per cent given the impact of the coronavirus.

Announcing the decision to shorten the curfew on weekdays, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said the move was designed to avoid over-crowding on public transport during rush hours, as workers travel home.

The message seems to have been misconstrued by the public, say increasingly worried medical authorities. They are concerned that the relaxed attitude might extend to the celebration of Sham Al-Nessim on Monday, when families traditionally gather to eat salted fish.

A government source said measures to prevent people from taking to public spaces, including gardens and beaches, to celebrate Sham Al-Nessim, were being considered.   

Sources say some cabinet members have been arguing for a total curfew on the long Easter weekend, which will stretch from Friday through to Monday. There is concern, however, that such harsh measures might prompt public unease.

As an alternative, say the same sources, the prime minister might appeal to the public to abandon traditional Sham Al-Nessim picnics to avoid a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases.

On Monday, World Health Organisation (WHO) Representative in Egypt John Jabbour praised the measures that have helped Egypt mitigate the impact of the virus. However, Jabbour called on the authorities to expand its testing for Covid-19 to help further control the infection rate.

Wider testing, Jabbour said, would reduce Egypt’s relatively high mortality rate among patients who have tested positive for Covid-19.

Egypt has a 7.6 per cent mortality rate, according to figures issued by the Ministry of Health.

During a press conference on Monday, Jabbour said WHO is coordinating with the Health Ministry to try and determine the reasons for the high death rate.

The minister of health had already indicated that close to one third of the victims of Covid-19, passed away before or just upon reaching hospitals. Jabbour agreed with this estimate.

Jabbour warned that crowded street markets increase the risk of transmission, and urged people to avoid large gatherings and comply with the preventative measures imposed to limit the spread of the virus.

According to official sources, the government is considering a raft of measures to be applied in the next few weeks — the holy month of Ramadan starts on 24 April — to strengthen preventive measures without undermining economic interests.

“The idea is to allow work to continue under careful guidelines: people have to make money to keep going and the financial assistance the government is offering the poorest cannot cover for all their expenses and needs,” said one official.

Parliament has decided to end its recess, introduced to observe the social distancing requirements needed to avoid a high infection rate, on 29 April.

Egyptian diplomacy is also considering a tentative agenda on some crucial files, including the situation in Gaza, on the eastern border, and in Libya on the western border.

During the past month Egypt has put off several meetings that were scheduled with Palestinian political and security teams from Gaza. It has kept contacts going but the exchange of visits to coordinate security management of the borders between Egypt and Gaza, and of the truce between Israel and Gaza, have been kept to a minimum.

Egypt has also suspended meetings it was hosting to discuss ways to overhaul the Libyan economy. The meetings were launched in late January on the recommendations of the Berlin Conference and were thought to be making progress.

Informed Egyptian officials say that they are not expecting the meetings to resume anytime soon, and doubt if the discussions can be back on track before mid-June.

During the past six weeks Egypt has engaged in a certain amount of medical aid diplomacy, sending packages of protective equipment to countries such as China and Italy that have been hard hit by Covid-19.

“These have been purposeful moves that aim to show solidarity with countries that cooperate with Egypt on crucial files,” commented an Egyptian diplomat. “But we hope that by late May, after the end of Ramadan and Eid, we will be getting back to work as usual.”

Government officials are not expecting the decision of the suspension of international flights to be renewed beyond the currently scheduled 24 April date — unless there is a worrying increase in the number of cases that might cause another two-week renewal of the suspension.  

Medical sources forecast mid-June to mid-July as the possible end of the worst phase of the outbreak of Covid-19 in Egypt. They are unequivocal, though, in their warning that this scenario depends on avoiding a hasty relaxation of the social distancing guidelines. They argue there is a difference between keeping the economy going and overstepping the boundaries of caution and that it is up to the government to strike the right balance.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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