“People wore face masks in the summer out of anxiety and fear,” Yasmine Mohamed, 41, told Al-Ahram Weekly. But once infections began to tail off, she, like many others, dropped the habit.
“Few places insist you wear a mask nowadays, says Salma Tawfik, 30. “Rather than wearing a mask, now I keep it in my pocket just in case I need it.”
On Monday Egypt reported 98 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 103,781 since the first case was reported on 14 February. It is a far cry from the 1,774 infections recorded on 19 June, Egypt’s highest daily toll.
Four months ago, following Eid Al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan and which is usually celebrated with family gatherings, coronavirus infection rates increased noticeably. Officials at the time blamed the hike on reckless behaviour and a disregard of protective measures.
Speaking on TV on Sunday, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar underlined that Egypt is still in the first wave of the pandemic, albeit one in steep decline.
Countries have been re-imposing lockdown measures to suppress the spread of infection as a second wave of the virus began to emerge.
“It is very possible that a similar second wave scenario will occur in Egypt. There is also a possibility that there will be spikes in numbers within the first wave Egypt is still experiencing. The most important thing for the public now is to adhere to preventative measures, maintain social distancing, and wear face masks,” said Abdel-Ghaffar.
Since 30 May face masks have been mandatory in Egypt on public transport, in shops, banks, government offices and private businesses, with violators facing fines of up to LE4,000.
“If we strictly adhere to the precautionary measures, another scenario may happen. Infection rates could remain at the same level as now or for another six months or a year,” said Abdel-Ghaffar.
Adel Khattab, professor of chest diseases and a member of the Supreme Committee for Virology at the Ministry of Higher Education, said that the current cavalier attitude to preventive measures was unacceptable.
He also debunked the common perception that infections are almost always accompanied by a fever.
“Thirty-five per cent of infected patients display no significant increase in body temperature,” Khattab said during a webinar on the coronavirus pandemic held by the Future University on Sunday.
Underlining the importance of precautionary measures, Khattab added that many people who contract the virus are asymptomatic, with some discovering their status only after having a PCR swab test before travelling abroad.
Though the number of new coronavirus cases has been hovering around 150 a day nationwide since August, the government has repeatedly urged caution to avoid a second wave of the pandemic, particularly with the advent of autumn and the beginning of the new academic year.
Islam Anan, a pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics lecturer at Misr International University (MIU), told the Weekly that a false sense of security among the public has led to non-compliance with preventative measures. With the relaxing of lockdown measures and relatively low and stable infection rates, people are taking less care than they should.
Egypt began the move towards a gradual reopening of the economy in June, lifting the night-time curfew, reopening restaurants and places of worship, and resuming regular international flights as part of its plans to coexist with the virus.
On 21 September, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli announced a further easing of restrictions by allowing open-air funerals, wedding ceremonies, film festivals and conferences. The cabinet has warned, however, that strict restrictions will be re-imposed should infection rates rise.
On face masks, Abdel-Ghaffar stressed that the degree of protection they offered could well be similar to that afforded by a vaccine.
“There have been global reports suggesting a vaccine is likely to offer 60 to 75 per cent protection which is the same as wearing a mask,” he said.
Khattab also stressed that those who have recovered from Covid-19 should continue to adhere to precautionary measures given that “immunity is not guaranteed after recovery” and “there are Egyptian doctors who have been infected twice.”
Ten months into the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists and drug companies worldwide are scrambling to come up with a vaccine. Sherif Wadie, emergency and intensive care consultant to the minister of health, says there are 2,400 ongoing programmes to produce a vaccine, of which just 240 are in an advanced phase.
Wadie told the Future University’s webinar that three phase-three clinical vaccine trials were being carried out in Egypt, two of them Chinese and one Russian.
On 28 September, as she urged Egyptians to take part in the trials “for the sake of humanity”, Health Minister Hala Zayed was injected with one of the Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines at the Egyptian Holding Company for Biopharmaceuticals and Vaccines (VACSERA).
On 30 September Reuters reported that Russia has clinched a deal to supply 25 million doses of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to Egyptian drug-maker Pharco.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Ghaffar said on Sunday that Egypt is developing four locally-made vaccines, two of which are soon to enter clinical trials.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of candidate vaccines in global pre-clinical evaluation includes four local products, said Abdel-Ghaffar, a DNA plasmid, inactivated-whole virus, influenza A H1N1 vector, and protein subunit vaccines. Though none of them have been approved for human clinical trials, he expects two of the four to gain approval in a matter of weeks.
Until a coronavirus vaccine is available, Khattab advises taking a seasonal flu vaccine to strengthen immunity and decrease the risk of coronavirus infection.
On Saturday, Egypt’s presidential adviser for health affairs Mohamed Awad Tageddin echoed the advice. “The elderly, children, people suffering from chronic diseases in the respiratory system, heart or kidneys, or those suffering from immune system diseases, are strongly advised to get the flu vaccine,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly