Two months after Egypt diagnosed its first case of Covid-19, the public response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the most populous Arab nation has been a mix of fear, caution, resignation and recklessness, sentiments influenced in large part by the country’s social and economic disparities.
Egypt’s toll, which on Friday night stood at 205 dead out of 2,844 confirmed cases, is relatively low in a country of 100 million people, but officials warn that unless people change their casual attitude toward the virus the numbers could swell beyond control.
It took Egypt more than a month to record 1,000 infections, but less than two weeks for that number to more than double.
News of the country’s first Covid-19 case in February instilled a fear that was compounded by a lack of information about the nature of the virus, how it was transmitted and its symptoms.
Mahmoud Mustafa, 26, a waiter from the southern city of Luxor, experienced the fear of succumbing to the often fatal respiratory disease last month when government health workers told him they believed he had the virus. He was given the all clear when he was re-examine the next day, but says the 24-hour wait was agonizing.
“I died a million deaths with every second that passed until they told me I was fine. Fear almost killed me,” said Mr Mustafa who, as a precaution, was kept under supervision for four days at a quarantine hospital set up in the city of Marsa Matrouh on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
But fear now appears to have given way to recklessness as thousands flout bans on large gatherings and guidelines on social distancing.
Cairo’s outdoor markets were crowded this past week and bumper-to-bumper traffic filled the capital’s streets, prompting warnings by authorities that harsher measures might be needed to enforce discipline.
Authorities have ordered public parks to be closed nationwide and said it was suspending public transport on Monday, when Egyptians celebrate the traditional Sham El Naseem holiday with picnics. Travel between provinces in tour buses would also be banned on the day. Beaches, historical sites and museums have been closed since last month as part of a package of measures that included the closure of schools, universities, mosques and churches as well as a halt to international air travel.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli ordered provincial governors to crack down on public gatherings on the day, while assuring the public that the coronavirus outbreak remained under control.
“Keeping it this way is chiefly dependent on the prevention of gatherings,” an official statement quoted him as saying.
The government has already banned group iftars this Ramadan, expected to begin on April 23 or 24. The communal breaking of the day’s fast during the Muslim holy month, organised for the poor or as neighborhood celebrations, can bring together hundreds of people.
The police have meanwhile been keeping people off the streets between 8pm and 6am, often detaining until daybreak those who do venture out for non-emergencies.
The main problem, however, is the near total failure to observe social distancing during daylight hours.
Many Egyptians say they have grown impatient after three weeks of nighttime restrictions on movement and the near complete shutdowns on weekends when everything is closed except for pharmacies, bakeries and supermarkets. Others have seemingly decided to simply ignore the threat of infection and resume their normal lives.
That sentiment may have been encouraged by the government’s desire to avoid a complete shutdown that would wipe out the economic benefits gained from years of harsh austerity and reforms.
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said he did not favour a complete lockdown because of its negative impact on the economy, and allowed millions of construction workers to continue building the national mega projects he launched since taking office in 2014. Businessmen have backed this approach, warning that an economic slump would be just as bad for Egypt as people dying of the coronavirus.
The need to keep working, coupled with the lax attitude adopted by many towards the risk of infection, have reinforced the idea that measures such self-imposed isolation and social distancing are only for the well off, a perception that has gained traction among many Egyptians.
Not many Egyptians, for example, can afford to stay home and rely on the expanding culture of home delivery that covers anything from groceries and pizzas to pet food, fresh meat and medicine, ferried by daredevil motorcycle riders who dart through the city’s streets and expect handsome tips on top of delivery charges. And few can shop at high-end supermarkets that offer a reasonable level of self-distancing but also charge much higher prices than grocery shops in poor and middle class-neighbourhoods.
The owner of a clothes shop in central Cairo, who at 67 is at higher risk of succumbing to Covid-19, says he cannot afford to remain shut and went ahead and reopened his store last week after a two-week hiatus.
“If my store stays closed for a long time, my loyal customers will look elsewhere for what they need,” he said. “But now that I am open every day, only a handful of those customers walk in and they spend much less than they used to.
“As for me, I keep sanitising and washing my hands while I am at the shop, but I also must go to the market to buy food on the way home. How else are we going to eat? No one does home delivery in the area where I live.”
“I am subscribing to the belief that ‘God will protect me’ while actually taking some precautions,” said a 68-year-old retired civil servant who ventures out at least once a week to shop at a nearby food market in central Cairo.
“I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but without regular trips to the shops, how will we eat?” said another female retiree. “I take precautions like wearing gloves and a surgical mask and I wash my hands thoroughly with soap when I am back home.
“I am not terrified by the coronavirus, but I don’t wish to be sick either.”