It was only a year ago that I decided to use the first line of the Cairo Metro, opened in 1987, to go to work. With some hygiene and technology upgrades on the metro system in Cairo recently, I thought it would be a time-saving and exciting experience to go back to using the metro.
But two weeks ago, Cairo and other areas in Egypt were hit by an unprecedented thunderstorm and rain, so the cabinet decided to give the day off to schools and universities and even to many workers. In parallel, the news of the rapid spread of the Covid-19 new coronavirus around the world and in Egypt was also frightening, and it has left many people reluctant to use public transport. However, I decided to continue with my plans.
The Saraya Al-Kobba Station parking area was not as packed as it usually is on the day that I left my car there. It can be empty on Saturdays and Sundays, but not on Mondays, as a rule. “How come I can easily find several and not just one parking space,” I asked the sayes, the man who helps me park, who wasn’t wearing any face protection. “People are afraid to take the metro because of this new virus thing, madam,” he replied. When I asked him why he was not protecting himself with a mask, he just smiled and gave no answer. Then he said that the masks cost “LE7 and I won’t find one anyway”.
“Not much has changed. Ticket purchases have decreased by only five per cent,” the clerk selling tickets said, ending the conversation abruptly. The platform was deserted, too. Last week, the government suspended classes in schools and universities until the end of month to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, so it was not surprising to find the stations less crowded than usual. But what about the other passengers? I waited longer than 3 minutes to get into a carriage, the usual interval between trains.
Mohamed, 40, who has been working at the Al-Kobba Station for a year, said that he would have liked managers to have meetings with staff “to provide employees with guidelines and information concerning the virus.” He didn’t think the passenger numbers had declined. “You should come early in the morning and see the crowds,” he said.
According to the Greater Cairo Underground Metro Authority Website, the first line of the network which connects Helwan to Al-Marg has 58 trains that carry around two million passengers on a daily basis. My daily destination is the Gamal Abdel-Nasser Station in the Downtown Isaaf area. A recorded message through the internal sound system of the metro offered instructions on safety to passengers, guiding them on how to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The employees at the toll machine at the Nasser Station were already wearing masks. “The authorities distributed the masks to metro employees for protection,” Hussein, 40, said while Shawki, 28, wasn’t wearing one. “It’s a bit hot today, and I can’t stand it on my face,” he said.
Using the system over three consecutive days, I noticed that the number of passengers had started to decline and the time interval between the trains was back to normal. “We also increased the number of trains despite the decrease in the number of daily passengers to avoid overcrowding,” a source at the Greater Cairo Underground Metro Authority, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the decline in the number of passengers at the Cairo Metro since announcing the Covid-19 in Egypt is between 10 to 30 per cent.
Heba Mahdi, 21, a student at the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University, has used a disposable mask for more than 10 days now. “I get my information about the coronavirus from social media. I specifically go to the page created by our faculty’s dean to get the right information and act accordingly,” she said.
Zeinab, 19, practises nursing at the Hussein Hospital in Cairo and is a first-year student at the Nursing Institute. She wears a non-disposable mask. “We normally use medical masks in the hospital every day, and this has nothing to do with the coronavirus. But these days I am also using one outside of the hospital,” she said.
Mai, who works in one of the military institutions, got her mask for LE66, and she’s been using it for more than two weeks. “It is unusual, and people have been staring at me. Today there are still women who use their veils to cover their mouths, but those won’t protect them. The problem is that they cannot find any masks, as the pharmacies have run out of them,” she said.
Marina, 20, was not wearing a mask. She thinks it’s useless as “you need to change it every couple of hours.” Marina is a student at the Faculty of Commerce and currently serves voluntarily at the St Marcos Church in Heliopolis at a time when the universities are suspended. She doesn’t think that public transport has fewer passengers. She gave me the impression that she could be in a state of denial about Covid-19.
“We cannot take a decision to stop operating the metro as long as the government has not announced a curfew and as long as we still have working passengers on a daily basis,” the source at the Greater Cairo Underground Metro Authority told the Weekly before the curfew was imposed on Tuesday. He said that all stations, carriages, seats and ticket offices were being sterilised in cooperation with the Egyptian Armed Forces. “It is preferable that the public use a sterilised means of transport than a non-sterilised one,” he said.
It is almost 4pm at the Al-Kobba Station. Omm Adham, 37, the fruit and vegetables vendor who has been doing business outside the station for six years, seemed disappointed. “Every day we used to sell 50 containers of tomatoes, each weighing 20kg. Today I have only sold three since 6am. There are no more pedestrians and no more metro passengers since the announcement of the virus in Egypt. I am afraid we are losing our business,” she said.
“Why aren’t you protected,” I asked her. “God is our saviour,” she replied.
In a telephone conversation with a friend, Marian Nader, who uses the metro more frequently, she said that while she was inside a carriage a lady had been giving out flyers with instructions about “what to do and what not to do” concerning Covid-19. It wasn’t clear who was sponsoring the campaign, “but whoever was sponsoring it, it’s a great list of precautions for public transport passengers,” Marian said. “Unfortunately, the lady sitting beside me was illiterate, and I had to explain to her about the content of the flyer.”
The Weekly obtained a copy of this flyer and found the advice to consist of the following. “Have hot drinks like ginger with lemon, or peppermint or anise; gargle with warm and salt water; use sanitised wipes or gel after touching surfaces; don’t touch the mask you are wearing, and don’t remove it as long as you are outdoors; sterilise your hands before you touch it; if you are not wearing a mask, do not touch your face, do not cover your nose or mouth with your hand, never ever cover your face with your veil or a dry napkin, as you will be harming yourself and us too.”
Marian, 26, does not wear masks, but she does put on medical gloves. “I believe the virus is a very infectious one, and it can stay on surfaces longer than living in the air, so I depend most on using sanitisers and gloves.” She is a graduate from the Faculty of Arts at Ain Shams University, and she mainly uses the first and oldest metro line from Al-Kobba to Nasser or Sadat in Downtown Cairo.
The Greater Cairo Metro has three lines. The first, connecting Helwan to Al-Marg, is 44km long and has 35 stops of which only five are underground. The second line, 21.5km long, connects Al-Munib in Giza to Shubra Al-Kheima. Both lines carry more than three million passengers a day.
During the past four years, the first two lines have seen renovations including the replacement of old carriages with air-conditioned ones. The third line of the metro connecting Attaba Square to Nadi Al-Shams, an 18 km distance, is planned to be inaugurated in 2023, with some stations already opened last October.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly