Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli is consulting with cabinet members on the details of the upcoming removal of the restrictions the government put in place on a wide range of activities on 19 March as part of plans to halt the spread of the Covid-19.
The question now is not whether to resume life the way it was before the restrictive measures were adopted, but rather how speedily to get things back to normal, or rather to the new normal, without falling into the trap of a possible surge in the number of coronavirus cases in Egypt.
Face masks are to feature high on the list of measures, and the website of the Ministry of Health is full of instructions on the best way to use and safely remove face masks to reduce the chances of catching or passing on the new coronavirus.
As of 31 May, all citizens receiving services in public or private-sector facilities, including government offices, banks, and supermarkets, or commuting on public transport, including taxis and other rented cars, will have to wear face masks or risk a LE4,000 fine.
The high demand and increased prices of surgical face masks has prompted the government to move towards honouring a promise made in May to provide reusable and washable ones instead. According to Minister of Industry Nevine Gamea, around eight million reusable cloth face masks have already been produced and should be available for sale shortly.
Briefing Madbouli on Sunday, Gamea said the plan the ministry was working on, in cooperation with the Ministry of Military Production and other bodies, would see an increase in production from eight to 20 million face masks per month.
With the availability of the cloth face masks, which should cost around LE5 and could be used 20 to 30 times after being washed and ironed, the government is planning to ease the restrictions on most activities that have been suspended for over three months.
The objective, as announced by the prime minister, is to give the economy a push after a considerable slowdown over the past few months that has prevented the government from achieving its six per cent growth target. This means that all factories, both public and private, will resume full working hours under strict safety measures. It also means that all stores, restaurants, and cafés will reopen under strict guidelines.
An informed government source expected that “before the end of June” all stores and restaurants should be allowed to reopen upon a commitment to observe a list of health guidelines that are currently being decided.
For restaurants and cafés, these include keeping no less than 50cm distance between each two tables and securing maximum hygiene standards for services, including all personnel wearing masks and gloves. The source said that any restaurant or café reporting infections of Covid-19 would be immediately closed.
For stores and shopping malls, face masks and social-distancing will also apply. Already, several stores have been instructed on mandatory floor-marking regulations for required distances of about 100cm between one client and another.
The operation of stores, the source said, would be similar to that of supermarkets: clients will be offered hand-sanitisers, all shopping baskets will be promptly sanitised, and clients will not be allowed to stand close to one another, with queues mandatory for cashiers or fitting rooms.
Storeowners and the managers of restaurants and cafés will be requested to send home any worker showing symptoms that could indicate possible infection with Covid-19, he added. Any store reporting several infections will be immediately closed.
The government, the source said, has not hesitated to close factories for thorough disinfection upon reports of cases of coronavirus infection. Closing a store in a mall in case of infections, the source explained, would not necessarily entail the suspension of activities in an entire shopping mall, however.
There has been no decision yet on whether the reopening will include cinemas, often part of shopping malls. There is still discussion between the government and the owners of cinemas on possible rules for the first phase of the return to the new normal.
OTHER FACILITIES: Cinemas, stores, and cafés were among the first facilities ordered by the government to suspend activities by the third week of March with the increase of recorded cases of Covid-19 in Egypt.
There is now a debate within the government on the dates to allow churches and mosques to reopen. The source said that Christians and Muslims should be expecting to resume congregations sometime around late June, provided that neither work on a full-capacity basis.
A source at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which runs most mosques in Egypt, said that towards the end of this month Friday prayers will be allowed in all leading mosques on a 60 to 70 per cent capacity basis. Full resumption of all congregations is tentatively scheduled for mid-July.
A source close to the office of the head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church offered similar dates. Late June to mid-July is also the timeframe that the ministries of education and higher education have offered for final high-school and university exams.
The resumption of international flights, according to the same government source, is also expected within the same timeframe. The source said that airports on the Red Sea and then Alexandria and Cairo International Airport would reopen.
He added that the number of flights per day, the destinations of the flights, and the operating rules for national carriers were still being discussed and a final decision should be taken in accordance with this timeframe.
The second half of July, according to an assessment offered by Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar, the minister of higher education, is expected to see the end of the peak of coronavirus infections in Egypt.
The first case of Covid-19 was recorded in Egypt in a tourist in Luxor, according to a statement on 14 February. This week, overall recorded cases were coming close to 35,000, with over 1,200 deaths, with the average number of recorded cases per day during the past two weeks at around 1,300.
During the past 14 weeks, some activities, including the construction sector, have not closed down. The resumption of some activities, including hotels, has been introduced at a low level. The number of curfew hours, initially set from 7pm to 6am, has been reduced several times.
Currently, the hours are from 8pm to 5am. A full removal of the curfew, according to the same source, is not expected before the end of this month, with restaurants and cafés ordered to work fewer hours than the pre-coronavirus usual.
According to government statements, the objective is to get the economy back on track, while working to make sure that the level of infections does not surge.
In a briefing before parliament, Mohamed Hassan, deputy minister of health, said that Egypt had not faced an unmanageable situation of coronavirus infections and that there was reason to hope that as the temperature started to increase with the advent of summer the spread of the virus would be controlled.
This account is similar to the assessment that Abdel-Ghaffar offered, though his account was not based on temperatures, which still need scientific backing, but rather on the findings of a model that predicts the level and pattern of the spread of the new coronavirus in Egypt.
Abdel-Ghaffar’s assessment suggested that Egypt was not in a difficult situation given that current cases, including those recorded and those possibly unrecorded, should not exceed one million, most of which have been either asymptomatic or with mild symptoms.
The profile of Covid-19 patients in Egypt is mostly in the range of asymptomatic to easily treatable, according to the Ministry of Health. This has been one of the arguments that officials have used to back their decision to avoid a total lockdown or further extension of the restrictive measures with a higher cost for the economy.
TREATMENT: The government has meanwhile increased the number of hospitals providing treatment, even without requesting testing, for individuals with suspected coronavirus infection.
In March, the number of hospitals allocated for the treatment and isolation of coronavirus patients was around 30. Today, the number has jumped to close to 400, mostly in governorates with high rates of infection, especially the Greater Cairo zone.
In parallel to increasing the number of hospitals and facilitating access to medical treatment in the hope of helping the recovery of more cases upon early treatment, the government is also moving to reduce the isolation regulations that have been applied.
Patients with no or mild symptoms should self-isolate or be granted isolation accommodation should they have no convenient places of their own, according to the Ministry of Health. Egyptians returning from overseas are now no longer required to stay in government-designated isolation places and will just be required to isolate themselves at home for two weeks.
This decision has not been challenged by the fact that over 100 Egyptians who have come back to Egypt during the past two weeks have tested positive at the airports. Instead, the government is acting to suspend the testing scheme that it has been applying at the airports to ask all those coming back to self-isolate for two weeks.
Once international flights are resumed, according to the same source, no self-isolation will be required either from Egyptians or from foreigners who live in or are visiting Egypt.
The idea now is to find a way to resume normal life as much as possible while knowing that there will still likely be new cases recorded for a few more months to come.
Essentially, officials have been stating that it is unlikely that any country will see the end of new cases of Covid-19 before a vaccine is found, possibly in the second quarter of next year.
The target for Egypt, the government source said, was not to secure zero new cases, but to make sure that the number of new cases recorded should be declining and that all new cases should be able to access adequate medical treatment.
Madbouli has repeatedly said in the past four weeks that what counts now is the awareness of every single citizen. He argued that observing attentive hygiene rules, social-distancing, and facemask usage could significantly help in reducing the cases of the new coronavirus in Egypt.
This should reduce the pressure that hospitals and medical doctors have been facing during the past month, with an increase of cases that has gone from 500 cases per day to 1,300 cases.
Madbouli had earlier met with the chair of the Doctors Syndicate to discuss safer working conditions for doctors, who have already lost over 40 physicians since the spread of Covid-19 began.
One request that the prime minister declined to discuss, according to a source at the syndicate, was for a full lockdown, if only for two or three weeks, to reduce the spread of the virus and hence the pressure on hospitals.
The government had previously declined an appeal for a two-week lockdown that the chair of the Doctors Syndicate, Hussein Khairy, made towards the end of Ramadan. It instead opted for tightening up the restrictions and increasing the curfew hours for the Eid holiday to avoid any surge in the number of cases.
According to the source at the syndicate, during his meeting with Khairy, Madbouli explained that the government was committed “to going in the direction of opening rather than the direction of closing in order to save a highly challenged economy”.
Today, according to the same source, the government will have to keep one eye on the economy and the other on an already challenged healthcare system.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly