Summary: Covid-19 second wave plunges Egypt’s national health system back into crisis. The regime deploys propaganda and disinformation as it engages in vaccine diplomacy with China.
As the official number of new cases spiked to over 1,000 per day, Egypt officially entered the second wave of the pandemic, Health Minister Hala Zayed announced at a press conference last month. Cabinet Spokesman Nader Saad urged the public to follow the government guidelines and said new cases would double within a week or less on account of widespread flouting of the anti-virus measures. Public New Year’s Eve celebrations were cancelled and though another full lockdown has so far been averted, some of the same tactics from the first wave have been reintroduced, as well as a few new ones. On 29 December Egypt’s Justice Minister Omar Marwan issued a decree granting a range of government officers the authority to issue fines to anyone violating the precautionary measures and the Interior Ministry announced that within 24 hours 20,986 violators had been fined for failing to mask up.
Schools and universities have been closed, while hotels, restaurants and hairdressers remain open, a sad reflection of the value placed on education by the regime. Masks have been made compulsory again in all indoor public spaces and on public transportation (including Uber and Careem), though private vehicles are excluded. On the streets of Cairo they are becoming a more common sight, mainly among women, though social distancing measures are still widely ignored.
As in the first wave President Sisi has left Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and Health Minister Zayed to become the public faces of the virus restrictions, backed by a muscular propaganda campaign. On Friday night the army conducted more late night disinfection operations at metro stations and central transport hubs downtown, even though this is not recommended by the WHO. Morale boosting videos have been put out showing happy celebrities having their vaccinations in picture-perfect hospitals – a far cry from the pictures medics used to share back when there was freedom of speech.
The information blackout has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. Although the health ministry releases a brief daily report on the number of infections, fatalities and recoveries, no attempt is made to break down the numbers for example by age or race and no specific website exists dedicated to publishing and updating information about the pandemic. Government officials often make misleading statements or present figures in ways that make it hard to tell whether they are making official or individual estimates, and the interior ministry continues to refuse to disclose the number of Covid-19 infections, deaths, and tests in prisons and detention centres, or even the measures taken to protect prisoners.
Last month the Regional Emergency Director for the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, Rick Brennan, said the number of Covid-19 cases recorded by Egypt’s Health Ministry does not reflect the actual figures of infections in the country. Media reports suggest the official numbers do not correlate with the actual death rate and the national statistical agency CAPMAS recently released new figures that show the death rates in May, June and July 2020 were actually 60,000 higher compared to the same period in previous years – although there was no mention of this at the time.
There are also outstanding unanswered questions about where the aid money is going. Last May the World Bank agreed to provide $50 million to Egypt in support of a Covid-19 emergency response. A statement issued at the time said what the funds would be spent on but since then there has been no clarification from the Egyptian authorities, nor any report on the impact the measures the regime has taken so far to contain the pandemic.
Last month an investigation by the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism found Egyptian medics who had been dealing with quarantined Covid-19 patients during the first wave had been issued masks that did not meet the standards required by Egypt’s health ministry. According to analysis of images of medical staff posted on social media in 20 of the 320 state hospitals handling coronavirus patients, the masks used in state hospitals from March until at least the end of June were Chinese-made counterfeits imported over a decade ago. Dozens of medics died but any medic or journalist who speaks out about missing or substandard protective gear or criticises the regime’s handling of the pandemic is liable to be arrested. (At the end of March the public prosecutor’s office had warned that citizens who spread state-defined “false news” about the coronavirus face a minimum of two years imprisonment and steep fines.)
Despite this, even regime media has started questioning the figures. Speaking on the army-controlled DMC satellite channel Maysa Sharaf-Eddin, professor of chest diseases at the Qasr al-Aini Faculty of Medicine warned that the true number of coronavirus infections in Egypt is likely 20 times the figures announced by the Health Ministry. The head of Egypt’s Judges Club has called on the authorities to disclose more information.
What is clear is that pressure is once again piling on hospitals and medical staff and gruesome reports have once again begun emerging of critical system failures. On 3 January a video went viral showing all the coronavirus patients in an intensive care unit in El Husseineya Central Hospital in Al Sharqia province dying after the oxygen supply to the ward failed, the second such incident in two days. The day before, patients in the ICU at Zefta General Hospital in Gharbiya governorate suffered the same fate. Video of the Zefta incident on 2 January showed similar grim scenes, patients struggling to breathe and shocked medical staff.
Hopes are now pinned on the national vaccination programme which the health minister said would start in February, with healthcare workers and the country’s most vulnerable citizens first in line. Egypt is expecting vaccines from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to cover 20% of the country’s needs. Besides ordering 20 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech and 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines, the second batch of 50,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine arrived in Egypt last month, coming from the UAE.
China, the UAE and Egypt are hatching plans for Egypt to become a key manufacturing centre for Chinese vaccines for the African market. The Sinopharm vaccine has already been cleared for emergency use in Egypt and 10 million doses are soon to be rolled out nationwide. Egyptian authorities have given it an 86-percent efficacy rate, a claim that requires some explanation given that Sinopharm itself announced its Covid-19 vaccines are 79.34% effective.
Clinical trials involving the Sinopharm vaccine have been ongoing since September but presumably due to a lack of trust only half the number of volunteers researchers wanted actually participated in the trial, among them Health Minister Zayed. The same day she received her jab the health ministry sent an invitation to doctors inviting them for one too, while neglecting to mention that they would also be part of a clinical trial.