“I don’t wear a face mask as regularly as I did. Now I keep it in the car or in my pocket, in case I need it to enter places that insist I wear one though there aren’t many of those these days,” Ahmed Mohsen, 37, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
His remarks are likely to echo with many members of the public. Yet on Saturday the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that legal action had been taken in a single, 24-hour period, against 1,851 drivers of public transport vehicles for not wearing face masks.
Masks have been mandatory since 30 May on public transport, in shops, banks, government offices and private businesses, with violators facing fines of up to LE4,000.
The public’s increasingly cavalier attitude to the wearing of masks is reflected in calls on the government from the manufacturers of medical supplies not to renew the decision, issued at the beginning of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, preventing the export of personal protective equipment.
Trade and Industry Minister Nevine Gamea said on Wednesday that Egyptian manufacturers are now allowed to export all anti-coronavirus supplies including alcohol by-products, protective masks and suits, latex gloves, mask shields, and medical goggles.
Gamea issued a decree in March banning the export of preventative supplies, including face masks and alcoholic hand washes, for three months. It was renewed in June.
“The market is suffering from declining demand, which is expected to continue until the end of the year,” head of medical supplies division at the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce (FECC) Mohamed Ismail told the Weekly prior to Gamea's Wednesday decision. “It is time for the cabinet to allow for exports.”
Before the emergence of Covid-19, local consumption of disposable masks was 180 million annually, of which 120 million were imported from China, according to Ali Ouf, head of the pharmaceutical division of the FECC.
“We had only seven production lines for masks prior to the coronavirus crisis but now Egypt has 186 production lines with a production capacity of at least 20,000 masks per day,” says Ouf, adding that even if a second wave occurs Egypt has enough masks in stock.
Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, Egypt has sent millions of face masks and other medical aid to other countries, including Italy, China, the US, and several African states.
Islam Anan, a pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics lecturer at Misr International University (MIU), said a false sense of security among the public has led to non-compliance with preventative measures, including the wearing of masks. With the relaxing of lockdown measures and relatively low and stable infection rates, people are taking less care than they should.
But while the number of new coronavirus cases has been hovering around 150 a day since August, experts warn the figures could increase dramatically come autumn.
The most important thing now, says Anan, is to adapt to the new normal by remaining committed to all preventive measures.
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. The cabinet has warned, however, that restrictions will be reimposed should infection rates rise.
“Because so little is known about the new coronavirus we have no choice but to compare it to previous epidemics as we try to predict the intensity of any second wave. Either the second wave will be weaker than the first, as has been the case with other coronavirus strains; it will be as intense, like seasonal influenza; or the second wave will be much stronger, which happened with the Spanish flu,” Anan told the Weekly.
He warned that caution must be exercised as policy-makers hoped for the best but planned for the worst, Anan stressed.
On Saturday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi directed government agencies to coordinate and extract the lessons learned from Egypt’s experience in combating the repercussions of coronavirus since the beginning of the outbreak, so they can be used to deal with any second wave. Al-Sisi’s remarks came during a meeting with the presidency’s health adviser Mohamed Awad Tageddin to follow up on efforts to deal with the pandemic and preparations to confront a possible resurgence.
A presidential statement added that among the precautionary measures needed is a concerted public awareness campaign, made especially urgent as the new school year approaches.
Egypt’s 2020-21 school year is slated to begin on 17 October, with 23 million students enlisted in schools. The start of the academic year has already been pushed back from September because of the coronavirus.
During the meeting Tageddin reviewed ongoing efforts to address the epidemic, including developing hospitals, launching mobile clinics, applying detection, isolation and coexistence procedures, expanding laboratory capacity, and constantly updating medical treatment protocols and national research efforts to develop vaccines.
Health Minister Hala Zayed told the media on Friday that 6,000 Egyptians will participate in phase 3 clinical trials for two potential coronavirus vaccines being developed by a Chinese company which she did not name.
Zayed said that during the trials, which will also be carried out in Bahrain, UAE and Jordan, volunteers, who first take a PCR test to make sure they have not been infected with the virus, will receive two injections, 21 days apart, and be monitored over a year.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli has announced a further easing of restrictions. From 21 September open-air funerals, wedding ceremonies, film festivals and conferences will be allowed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly