I never imagined that the saying “every cloud has a silver lining” would become so apparent so quickly as I spent the first week of virtual self-quarantine in my home in Cairo as communities everywhere prepared to ward off the spread of the new Covid-19 coronavirus by decreasing all out-of-house activities.
As a mother and grandmother whose two married children live at opposite ends of Cairo, I found connections by means of WhatsApp and regular phone calls to be a blessing. But what also became apparent very quickly, and also perhaps surprisingly, was the almost instantaneous hands-on reaction from schools, clubs, and even supermarkets, which all acted quickly to deliver on their goods, both literally and figuratively, the minute that school closures across Egypt were announced.
It was my constant communication with my daughter, specifically, which made me become quickly aware that beneath the sense of fear that could be instilled if all one did was watch the media while self-isolating at home communities across Egypt were being proactive and positive in dealing with the increasingly restrictive situation imposed by the threat of the Covid-19 virus.
On the very next day following the announcement that schools would be closed as part of government efforts to contain the spread of the virus, my daughter received a WhatsApp message in the morning from her seven-year-old son’s school. The headline was to “stay positive” and the content was about “the new experience of e-learning”. This would be the start of online teaching for primary school children, the message said, in an experiment to be undertaken for the first time ever.
The school’s message said that the self-distancing imposed by the virus should also be an opportunity for “quality time to spend with your child and to make good use of it… children copy us, so make sure that you are showing persistence, positivity, and passion for [the work] you are doing with your children.”
The same hands-on attitude was displayed by the nursery my two-year-old granddaughter attends, which in its turn sent supportive notes to both parents and children full of inspiring thoughts and fun activities to do at home every day. Even my grandson’s judo instructor sent a WhatsApp message to all the team, with videos and instructions on maintenance exercises and moves to be done at home under parental supervision.
Then came a Facebook post by a well-regarded paediatrician in the community detailing instructions to parents on cases that could necessitate their taking children to the clinic. An extra phone hotline was announced to communicate with the clinic, in addition to instructions for parents on reservations and spacing out appointments in order to avoid congestion inside it, including “waiting inside your car until we call you to come up to the clinic.” The extra fee for house calls was waived, so as to encourage parents to stay at home with their children rather than needing to take them to the clinic.
For a city as bustling as Cairo, where recreation, club activities, and family gatherings are mainstays of social life, it is hard to imagine being self-quarantined for extended periods. Yet, clubs announced their closures, directives were given to coffee shops, restaurants and stores to close down from 7pm to 6am, and people gradually became aware of the necessity of decreasing the frequency of going out. As a result, supermarket and food-delivery chains and even small retail grocers pitched in with innovative solutions.
Fourteen new mobile-phone shopping apps were created and publicised on social media, while stores ranging from a famous traditional fiteer (Egyptian pancakes) vendor to a high-end baked-goods outlet offered, in addition to delivering their own goods, also to deliver other commodities needed by clients free of any extra charge. One supermarket chain specified a special hour “for senior citizens only” to do their shopping in the store.
This was in addition to the countless groups formed on WhatsApp with such titles as “Doing Good” whose aim is to raise financial support and donations for vulnerable groups and people whose livelihoods have been affected by closures or lay-offs.
An NGO that supports employees at the social and sporting club of which I am a member circulated a message as soon as it became apparent that the closure of clubs would take place announcing that donations would be received to help support club employees whose livelihoods would be adversely affected now that the club and its restaurants and outlets would be closed, for example. Within the span of three days sums were collected that would help the employees ride out at least a month of decreased incomes.
As the world watches the unprecedented pandemic caused by the new coronavirus play out, I find it worth watching how that other pandemic, the pandemic of fear, is being countered by communities here in Egypt who have opted for a powerfully proactive mode of responsiveness that forms a strong counter-balance to any feelings one might harbour of fear or isolation in the face of the virus.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly