Since 1 April, Egypt has seen a slow but steady daily increase in coronavirus cases. On Monday, 852 new cases of Covid-19 were reported, a four-month high.
While the announced infection numbers may appear low compared to the spikes being seen elsewhere in the world, many observers say they can be multiplied by 10 since they include only cases that test positive at Ministry of Health hospitals.
The figures are rising at a time, Ramadan, when traditionally families gather to share the Iftar and Sohour meals.
“I cannot believe my eyes when I see the advertisements for Ramadan tents offering Iftar and Sohour. I can’t believe the level of recklessness,” Ashraf Al-Fiqi, a clinical research and immunology consultant in Washington, wrote on his Facebook page.
Explaining that hundreds of infections may occur in just a couple of hours in crowded spaces such as Ramadan tents, Al-Fiqi urged Egyptians to strictly commit to social distancing and other preventive measures.
Unlike last year, when Ramadan coincided with a night-time curfew and the closure of mosques, this year Taraweeh prayers are going ahead in mosques though they have been restricted to no longer than half an hour.
Saturday also saw the beginning of summer working hours. Commercial venues will be allowed to remain open an hour longer than in winter. Shops and malls will extend their working day to 11pm on weekdays and midnight during weekends, while coffee shops and restaurants will remain open from 5pm to 1am throughout the week.
While the Health Ministry had expected that the increase in infections in April would flatten by May, Al-Fiqi warns of “a disaster in June” if people do not take preventative measures seriously.
Presidential Adviser for Health Affairs Mohamed Awad Tageddin confirms that Egypt has yet to hit the peak of the third wave.
While President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has ruled out a fresh lockdown, he recently urged citizens to stick with preventive measures, especially in Ramadan. The government is betting on public awareness, and its mass vaccination campaign which began last month, to curb the spread of the virus.
On Sunday Al-Sisi ordered the continuation of preventive measure awareness programmes in order to maintain the “balanced path the state has pursued throughout the pandemic”.
A lack of public awareness coinciding with Ramadan has been blamed for the mounting number of infections in Egypt, including the dramatic rises in case numbers, and in deaths, witnessed in Sohag.
Mahmoud Fahmi, head of the Doctors’ Syndicate in Sohag, said in TV statements on Sunday that he had asked the governor of Sohag to impose a curfew “before it is too late” but was rebuffed.
“During the last 48 hours we have lost five doctors to coronavirus and there is an abnormal increase in infections and deaths in the governorate,” Fahmi said. He added that isolation hospitals are full and the governorate is facing a shortage of ventilators.
Sohag MP Mustafa Salem has called on the Education Ministry to halt the school year, and the Health Ministry to increase the number of isolation hospitals. He has also asked that more vaccination centres be opened, pointing out that in a “governorate of five and a half million citizens on there are just three vaccination centers”.
Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, deputy minister for preventive medicine, downplayed the situation in Sohag. “The situation is not dangerous. The slight rise in cases is a result of lack of awareness,” he argued before urging citizens to register for a vaccination.
During an inspection tour in Sohag last week, Health Minister Hala Zayed said demand for vaccines in Upper Egyptian governorates was far lower than in Cairo and Alexandria.
Egypt’s mass vaccination campaign aims to inoculate as many citizens as possible. So far Egypt has received around 1.5 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm and the British-Indian AstraZeneca vaccines. The Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine is expected to be added to the list soon. Georgy Borisenko, the Russian ambassador to Egypt, met with Zayed on Monday to discuss the possibility of Egypt manufacturing the Russian vaccine locally to meet its domestic vaccination needs, and to export to African states.
The Egyptian Drug Authority (EDA) approved the Russian vaccine for emergency use in February, a month after approving the Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines.
According to the Health Ministry, by Sunday a total of 660,000 Egyptians had been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Abdel-Fattah said more than 1.5 million people had registered for vaccinations since the ministry launched its website http://www.egcovac.mohp.gov.eg/.
Last week, Zayed said the government was working to turn Cairo’s International Exhibition Centre into a mega vaccination centre that could process 10,000 people daily. In two weeks, Egypt will be having 368 vaccination centres after adding 167 new ones to the existing ones.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly