Egypt and COVID-19: don’t ask, don’t tell

Summary: despite rising numbers of COVID-19 cases the regime prepares to reopen the economy; medics and other objectors are accused of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Egypt continues to unfold at an alarming rate. At the end of May for four consecutive days the Ministry of Health announced the highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Officially the number of confirmed cases now stands at 38,284 after 1,455 new infections were reported yesterday. But on June 1 the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Khaled Abdel Ghaffar had said the real number is probably five times higher – or around 117,000 cases.

In a widely circulated audio file a voice believed to be Egyptian businessman Ahmed Waadan, founder of some of Egypt’s best known nightclubs and bars, says that according to his sources Egypt has the highest reproduction rate of COVID-19 in the world, with every infected person infecting 5 others, on account of the slow initial response by the government.

Despite the mounting crisis, the regime and business lobby remain eager to return the country to normal life as soon as possible. It is easy to see why: Minister of Finance Mohamed Ma’it said Egypt lost LE 123 billion [GBP £5.9 billion] of revenues during the past three months due to coronavirus and the economic impact is still a rolling boulder. To ease the pain the regime has said the measures put in place to tackle the virus will soon be lifted, with many venues including sports and religious establishments being allowed to reopen on June 15th.

Last week Egyptian health authorities abolished all COVID-19 testing at airports, despite the day before 105 overseas arrivals testing positive for COVID-19. This follows the abolishing of mandatory quarantine at government facilities, allowing overseas arrivals to self-isolate at home, effectively making it voluntary.

This new unofficial “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is working so well that Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Khaled Abdel Ghaffar said after July 17th the number of new cases would decrease to zero.

Meanwhile on Deathbook – as Facebook seems to have become these days – the casualties mount more each day.

As hospitals in overcrowded public health facilities up and down the country max out, desperate doctors and relatives trying to source medicine or find a bed post heart-breaking messages about the agony they are enduring. Doctors write how they have not been home for 3 weeks, while others post pictures of people collapsed in the street after being refused a hospital place.

The information environment is muddied by the abundance of fake news, conspiracy theories and fabricated documents, including counterfeit health ministry documents with fictitious numbers.

Since the health ministry announced successful trials of coronavirus patients being injected with the blood of those who have recovered and called for people to donate blood, a blackmarket for plasma has sprung up, with people offering to donate for up to EGP 30,000 ($1,884). Forged documents are used to make it look like people have had coronavirus when they have not so they can donate, leading to jokes that although only 35,000 have had the virus, 600,000 people are now coming forward to sell plasma. Although Dar Al-Ifta, one of the principal Islamic bodies in Egypt, declared blood donation religiously permissible, a lively debate continues online about whether plasma transfusion is haram.

As doctors continue to complain about the increasing rate of infections that has led to more than 50 deaths among medical staff, so the regime has responded with skepticism, threats and intimidation, and at least three doctors have been arrested.

On 28 May Sisi condemned “enemies of the state” who “questioned” the country’s achievements and regime media accuses doctors who protest of treason, saying they are sympathizers of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The front page of Al-Dostor on May 28 included pictures of the members and former member of the Doctors Syndicate Council, as well as politicians, journalists and other prominent public figures over whom a banner read, “All Members of the Brotherhood.” Leading regime propagandist Ahmed Moussa said members of the banned organisation should be denied medical treatment since they are “not human”.

While doctors and the poor continue to die for lack of medication and beds, regime members have their own medical facilities while the wealthy can pay for a la carte treatment at private hospitals.

Palm Hills tycoon Yasseen Mansour set the trend for the super wealthy by striking a deal with the army to allow them to turn his 200 room Novotel hotel in Sheikh Zayed into a coronavirus treatment centre, with 50 rooms for his use and 150 rooms for them. Since then other wealthy hotel owners have been looking to strike the same deal, while Mr Mansour himself has reportedly left for London on his private jet.

The procurement process for the equipment and materiel needed to fight the virus remains shrouded in mystery. All healthcare providers in Egypt have to procure COVID-19 medicines through the state procurement scheme which is overseen by the army. Factories falling under the Military Production Ministry are already producing cloth masks, with plans to expand output. As a recent Carnegie report observes “the Egyptian military industry’s opaque organizational structure and absence of professional managers make accountability doubly difficult”.

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