The women’s ululation and jubilant cries were perhaps the last thing anyone expected to hear at a Cairo hospital where coronavirus patients are receiving medical care.
There was a good reason why staff members of the Imbaba Hospital for Fevers were celebrating on Thursday. A group of 12 female staffers, including doctors, nurses and porters, had just received their test results for Covid-19 and all came back negative.
“It took so long for the results to come, I was going out of my mind,” said one nurse from a room in the women’s section of the Nile-side hospital.
There were tears, laughter and hugs. “God is merciful,” yelled another nurse wearing a blue protective robe, a surgical mask and white nylon gloves.
The jubilation and flurry of congratulatory words gave everyone a much-needed reprieve from worrying about how loved ones are faring, or thinking of the death stalking the facility.
The outbreak of coronavirus in Egypt — a country of more than 100 million — has claimed 21 lives, with 465 confirmed cases announced to date.
These are relatively low numbers given the size of the population and the rising toll elsewhere as the disease rips through nations across the globe, with thousands dying and almost half a million infected worldwide.
The government is not taking any chances, though. A nationwide nighttime curfew went into force on Wednesday and large gatherings as well as international air travel have been banned.
Schools and hospitals have been closed along with mosques, churches, historical sites and most beach resort hotels on the Red Sea.
The curfew got off to a deadly start on Wednesday night when a truck loaded with construction material ploughed into a line of cars waiting at a checkpoint south of Cairo. At least 18 were killed and a dozen injured, according to security officials.
President Abdel Fatah El Sisi urged Egyptians to respect the rules introduced to combat the virus in a message on his official Facebook page. A day earlier, he warned that violators of the new rules would be “decisively and firmly” dealt with after asking Egyptians to do more to help authorities to combat the disease.
Like other countries, the coronavirus is dominating the national conversation in Egypt, with giant billboards spelling out advice on avoiding infection and radio and television shows offering instructions on how to proceed in case of suspected infections.
News of the disease in Egypt and elsewhere is splashed across the front page of every newspaper and tops news bulletins. Social media users are tirelessly sharing material on the virus - to the extent that others plead with them to stop.
But a visit to the Imbaba hospital, one of a handful in Cairo that treats Covid-19 patients, brings home the magnitude of the challenge faced by authorities trying to contain a rapidly worsening outbreak with a health care system stretched thin and suffering from decades of mismanagement and inadequate resources.
Mr El Sisi has pledged 100bn Egyptian Pounds for a comprehensive program to contain the outbreak.
On an overcast day that saw intermittent rainfall, only a handful of the visitors at the hospital wore masks or gloves. Some sat grim-faced on benches in the grounds, waiting for word on the condition of their loved ones. Others walked into the hospital carrying food and other supplies for the patients.
The grounds of the facility, which is located in the working and middle-class district of Imbaba, were littered with rubbish and debris from an ultramodern steel-and-glass tower under construction at the part of facility facing the Nile.
Tuk-tuks waited outside for a hand signal or a shout from relatives to come in and ferry loved ones from the emergency room at one end of the hospital to the wards.
Seeking to lift the nation’s morale, Mr El Sisi has reassured Egyptians that “we will get through these critical moments and, with God’s help, they will become a memory from a distant past.”