The warning to Egyptians came all the way from the top: don't drop your guard, because the coronavirus threat is not over yet. But with the summer holidays in full swing, on beaches and in private clubs the advice appears to be falling on deaf ears.
As the pandemic that has claimed 5,173 lives and infected at least 96,590 in the country since February appeared to be making a comeback after a short respite, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi urged everyone to remain vigilant.
“It hasn’t been so bad and the rates [of infections and deaths] have begun to greatly improve, but I don’t want that to make us less attentive or cautious,” Mr El Sisi said in televised comments on Sunday.
“Please, we want to go down to zero. And that’s not all – we want to stay there,” he said. “We must all understand that any negligence will impact on all of us now that schools and universities will shortly reopen.”
Mr El Sisi has consistently appeared in public wearing a mask and diligently observing social distancing during meetings, but the majority of Egyptians have taken a casual and potentially lethal attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic.
Many Egyptians do not wear masks in crowded public places as ordered by the government when the country was almost completely reopened after a three-month lockdown in late June. They do not care much for social distancing either.
This recklessness has not been the exclusive domain of the poor or the unaware but is seen across Egypt’s rigidly class-based social structure, transcending barriers of education, wealth and power.
On the north coast, a sliver of desert hugging the Mediterranean and built up with gated holiday homes, the bravado, as well as denial, are on daily display. There, people’s actions make a mockery of the government’s repeated warnings and high-profile media campaign against taking Covid-19 lightly.
It's a stunning reversal of the early days of the pandemic in March and April when the well-heeled could comfortably self-isolate at home to avoid infection while millions had to go out to earn a daily wage, running the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
In the end, the government told all Egyptians to resume normal activity but take precautions until a vaccine for Covid-19 was developed, a decision that led to accusations it was putting the economy before the well-being of the people.
The critics were proven wrong and the infection curve began to go down in late July and early August, dropping from about 1,500 new cases a day in June and early July to between 130-150 today.
The decline coincided with the August holiday season, when Egyptians with deep pockets head to the north coast, commonly known as the Sahel, to escape the heat and humidity of Cairo and other inland cities.
Fear of the virus has been replaced with the lure of private golden sandy beaches and pristine blue Mediterranean waters. Instead of social distancing, there is mingling, and not just on crowded beaches and in packed nightlife spots.
Hundreds of people gathered at a private party that featured a popular Egyptian singer earlier this month in one of the high-end, seaside compounds, with scores of cars lined up at the gates trying to gain entry.
The organisers ended the gig early and had faced legal proceedings along with the singer before charges of violating anti-coronavirus regulations on gatherings were later dropped.
“The two extremes are here,” said Ghada Ghazal, a 59-year-old mother of three, one of whom contracted the virus soon after she arrived at the north coast earlier in the summer. “There are people here who never leave home, content with the sea view from their terraces; and then there are those who haven’t even heard of Covid-19,” she said, explaining that such contrasts are often found within one family.
Mrs Ghazal spoke at Hacienda White, a high-end seaside development where beaches are crowded during weekdays and become packed at weekends. Private parties attracting hundreds are an almost nightly fixture.
“When numbers [of infections] go down, people think corona is on the verge of disappearing,” she said. “With all the misinformation and rumours that go around, no one is really sure what’s true and what’s not, so they just choose to forget its entire existence.”
Sahar El-Gazzar, a 62-year-old widow and a mother of three, said she was so influenced by the carefree attitude of vacationers on the north coast that she began to behave like everyone else. It took just a week for her physically disabled 30-year-old son to become infected.
“Back in Cairo, we were very cautious. But here, everyone is living so freely as if there isn’t even a pandemic,” she said. “It was my fault.
“Everyone assumes the sun and wind here in Sahel will prevent Covid-19. We had people over every day. We had an average of 15 people over at our house for dinner every day. You can’t blame the government. It cannot chase everyone down.”