For the first time in four months, Egypt’s daily toll of coronavirus cases dropped below 200 this week.
In a cabinet meeting on 29 June, Health Minister Hala Zayed highlighted a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which stated that Egypt has the lowest infection rate in the Middle East.
Between 28 June and 3 July, 2,158 coronavirus cases were detected nationwide, compared to 4,080 cases between 21 and 27 June. On Monday, the Health Ministry announced 157 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number to 94,640 since the first case in Egypt was registered on 14 February.
Islam Anan, an epidemics specialist and a pharmaeconomics lecturer at Misr International University, warned on his Facebook page on Monday that announcing the headline fall in the number of infections without releasing the figures of each governorate, or providing information on the number of swabs taken each day, could foster a false sense of security among the public and lead to a reduction in the wearing of masks.
Following Eid Al-Fitr holiday two months ago coronavirus infection rates noticeably increased despite stricter preventive measures, including a night-time curfew. At the time, officials said the hike in infections could be attributed to reckless behaviour and a disregard for the protective measures in place.
This week, a month after Egypt gradually began lifting its coronavirus restrictions, Eid Al-Adha was celebrated. It is a feast usually marked by gatherings.
On 27 June Egypt began lifting many of the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including cancelling the curfew and allowing cafés, cinemas, restaurants and gyms to reopen.
A combination of the coronavirus outbreak, hot weather, summer vacation, and Eid Al-Adha five-day holiday left Cairo’s streets emptier than usual. Unlike Eid Al-Fitr, Eid Al-Adha was not accompanied by a suspension of transport or travel ban between governorates, and many people took the opportunity to head to the coast for the holiday.
Hisham Al-Shaer, a member of the board of the Chamber of Tourism Establishments, said in a telephone interview with state-owned Channel One on Saturday that there was a surge in demand for hotels and tourist resorts during the vacation along Egypt’s north and Red Sea coasts.
Egyptian hotels that have hygiene safety certificates were allowed to increase their occupancy rates to 50 per cent as of 1 July, double the 25 per cent cap that applied during Eid Al-Fitr. There are more than 600 certified hotels and resorts nationwide.
Several holiday-makers who travelled to the North Coast told Al-Ahram Weekly that though the pandemic should have cast a shadow over their holiday, they did not feel any difference to their vacation at the same time last year.
Tourist villages and hotel beaches were open, sea activities available, and many cafés and restaurants operated beyond the official closing time of 12am, with a few even serving banned shishas.
Ahmed Sami, a 35-year-old father of two, told the Weekly that “life is going on as usual in Sahel,” except for the wearing of masks in supermarkets.
“North Coast beaches are nearly full, many cafés and restaurants failed to adhere to the 50 per cent maximum occupancy rate, and almost all of them were operating beyond the limited hours,” said Sami.
From 26 July, restaurants and cafés were allowed to remain open till midnight rather than 10 pm, and permitted occupancy rates were increased from 25 per cent to 50.
Yasmin Zahi travelled to Sahel with her family during the feast.
“After three months of lockdown, we could not take it any longer,” she said. “The number of infections is decreasing by the day, thank God, and this reassured us.”
Like much of the public, Hossam Hosni, head of the Health Ministry’s Scientific Committee to Combat Coronavirus, believes Egypt has managed to control the pandemic.
“I don’t say we have defeated the virus, but we have controlled it,” Hosni said on TV. He added that he was expecting zero cases by mid-September, provided the public continue to adhere to preventative measures.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli last week attributed the resurgence in some countries of Covid-19 to the “lack of awareness and non-compliance with the preventative measures.”
Madbouli called on Egyptians to continue to adhere to all precautions, including social distancing and wearing face masks in crowded places, to help the country keep the daily infection tally low and prevent a possible resurgence.
“If coronavirus cases resurge, the government will be forced to restore stricter measures,” he said.
The Health Ministry began the process of shutting down makeshift isolation facilities at youth hostels on 8 June, and on 28 July the last patients isolated in youth hostels were discharged. The ministry has also wound down several isolation hospitals.
Any sudden increase in numbers, however, will see a shift in track. Dr Jihan Al-Assal, vice president of the Health Ministry’s Scientific Committee, said last week that Egypt is ready to deal with any possible second wave of coronavirus.
“There are comprehensive preparations for any second wave,” Al-Assal said in telephone interview with state TV.
Like Madbouli, Al-Assal warned the public they should continue to socially distance and wear masks. “Do not feel safe until a vaccine arrives,” she said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said during a virtual news briefing on Monday that “a number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have effective vaccines that can help prevent infections, however, there’s no silver bullet at the moment — and there might never be.”
Among the WHO list of candidate vaccines in global pre-clinical evaluation are four local products that Higher Education Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar announced last month. The four vaccines, which have not yet been approved for human clinical trials, include DNA plasmid, inactivated-whole virus, influenza A H1N1 vector, and protein subunit vaccines.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: The numbers game