Egypt’s coronavirus crisis in worst period after two-week case spike

Around 50 per cent of the country's Covid-19 cases were recorded in the 14 days between May 27 and June 9

Egyptian municipality workers disinfect the Giza pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as a protective measure against the spread of the coronavirus. AFP
Egyptian municipality workers disinfect the Giza pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as a protective measure against the spread of the coronavirus. AFP

Nearly half of Egypt’s officially declared cases of Covid-19 have occurred during the two weeks ending on June 9, a clear indication that the most populous Arab nation is going through the worst stretch of its three-month struggle against the deadly disease.

A senior Health Ministry official, meanwhile, said the worst was yet to come in the remainder of June. The rate of cases would hold steady in July before it begins to fall around the middle of the month, he said.

A compilation of figures released daily by the Health Ministry shows that 18,073 of the total 36,829 confirmed Covid-19 cases, or about 50 per cent, were recorded in the 14 days between May 27 and June 9. Nearly 10,000 of the total number of cases have made a full recovery.

The individual daily figures during that period ranged from an all-time high of 1,536 on May 31 and 910 recorded on May 27.

The two-week period also saw a total of 509 Covid-19-related deaths, or more than a third of the 1,306 fatalities recorded since the outbreak of the coronavirus in mid-February.

Authorities have said the actual number of Covid-19 cases could be much higher than the figures released by the government but denied charges of a cover-up. They have reassured the public that resources were available to deal with a much higher number of cases if need be.

Higher Education Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said last month that no country anywhere in the world has a precise figure for Covid-19 cases and that only mass testing could produce actual numbers. He also warned that the number of cases could shoot up to 100,000 or 1 million if Egyptians don’t more diligently observe preventive measures like social distancing and hygiene practices.

It is not difficult to conclude that the number of Covid-19 cases announced daily by the Health Ministry may be well below the actual number. Critics believe that authorities are not carrying out enough targeted or random testing.

Well-heeled Egyptians, for example, check into private hospitals or seek treatment while self-isolating at home. Many suffer mild forms of Covid-19 and quietly self-treat. Others contract the disease and seek treatment outside the health care sector and without sharing news of their ailment with relatives or neighbors because of the social stigma among segments of the population.

The number of Covid-19 cases were likely to increase in June, according to Hossam Hosny, the Health Ministry’s head of the scientific, counter-coronavirus committee. Speaking in a television interview late on Tuesday night, he said the worst government estimates for June was for the daily number to hit 2,500.

“July 15 will see the start of the journey of decline … The disease has greatly weakened but its spread has become more acute,” he said. He cautioned that social distancing remained the best way to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

While the number of Covid-19 cases remain relatively low in a country of Egypt’s size - 100 million people - the potential of a catastrophic spread remains a real threat given the casual attitude adopted by many Egyptians toward the disease.

Egypt has since June 1 made the use of masks mandatory in public spaces like public transport, banks and government offices. It has kept sports clubs, gyms, cinemas, theaters, restaurants and cafes shut since March, along with schools, universities and beaches to check the spread of the disease.

Police have gone to great lengths to make an example of offenders, but adherence to the rules remain less than exemplary. The Interior Ministry, for example, said on June 2 that legal proceedings were initiated against more than 7,000 motorists in the previous 24 hours for violating the rules on masks. The ministry, which oversees the police, said on the following day that similar measures were taken against 8,980 public transport drivers nationwide.

Egypt’s dealing with the coronavirus outbreak has pivoted around striking a balance between protecting the population from the ravages of the pandemic while trying to stop the economy from tanking, thus wiping out the hard-won gains made in recent years through a harsh austerity programme that saw prices of essential goods and services soar.

Authorities have sought to gradually reopen the country with business tycoons publicly warning that an economic meltdown would be deadlier than Covid-19. Hotels, for example, have reopened with limited occupancy and under a strict sanitisation protocol. The resumption of air travel is currently under consideration along with steps to reopen the tourism sector for foreign tourists.

Critics, however, maintain that reopening the country could worsen the pandemic, but the government counters by saying that, in the absence of a vaccine, Egyptians, like the rest of the world, must learn to live with Covid-19 as long as adequate precautions are taken.

Updated: June 10, 2020 06:34 PM

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