Egypt takes steps to counter coronavirus spread and its fallout

The country has closed schools and universities and announced a multi-billion-pound spending plan

TOPSHOT - A camel waits at an overlook by the (L to R) Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and Pyramid of Menkaure (Menkheres) at the Giza pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital on March 13, 2020.   / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed
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Egypt has become the latest country to introduce school and university closures as it steps up its campaign to contain a coronavirus outbreak, including a milestone edict by a supreme religious authority encouraging Muslims to stay away from mosques and pray at home.

The latest measures came as Egypt grappled with the aftermath of heavy rainfall and gale-force wind that battered the country on Thursday and Friday, killing at least 29 people, disrupting power and water supplies and flooding streets in the capital and elsewhere.

The storm, nicknamed “The Dragon” by social media users, again laid bare the poor state of infrastructure in Cairo and other cities across the country. Many of the capital’s streets remained flooded on Sunday, with municipal workers struggling to clear the water to allow traffic to flow.

The coronavirus and the storm combined have created a feeling of uncertainty among Egyptians.

Many of them thronged supermarkets on Saturday night after the suspension of classes to stock up on food, water and sanitiser. In some supermarkets, shoppers pushing overladen trolleys queued for more than an hour to pay for their goods.

On Sunday, Al Azhar, the leading religious authority for Sunni Muslims, lent its weight to anti-coronavirus measures taken by governments in Muslim countries the world over. The authority said it is religiously permissible to cancel prayers at mosques, including the Friday prayers, if it helps to contain the spread of the virus.

"One of the loftiest objectives of Islam's sharia is to protect lives and safeguard them from dangers and damage," said a statement by Al Azhar's council of top clerics, the Cairo-based institution's highest theological body. The statement called on the ill and the elderly, believed to be the most vulnerable to the virus, to stay at home and not go to mosques. It said families should pray at home together and that the call for prayers could include language urging Muslims to do so.

The government has also unveiled a "comprehensive" plan costing 100 billion pound (Dh23.4 billion) to combat the fast-spreading virus.

Egypt has to date announced only two coronavirus-related deaths – a German tourist and an Egyptian woman, both in their sixties – and 110 cases by Saturday night.

While the numbers are relatively low, the detection of the virus in Egypt has had an immediate impact on tourism after outbreaks on Nile cruise ships in the country's south.

Tourism Minister Khaled El Anany said the vital sector remained unaffected by the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt, but two tourist guides who spoke to The National said there were booking cancellations of up to 30 per cent. These, they said, included cancellations by Italian tour operators, a mainstay of the industry in Egypt, due to the lockdown in that country over the coronavirus.

"We were expecting 300 tourists from France this week, but only 200 are now arriving," said one tour operator who only works with French tourists. Speaking from aboard a Nile cruise ship, he said: "If future visitors are guaranteed a full refund for their booking, they would stay away, but so far there has been no travel advisory against travelling to Egypt."

In Cairo, a freelance tour guide who has worked an average of four to five days a week for the past year spoke of how business had suddenly slumped.

Passengers, some wearing protective face masks, aboard an EgyptAir flight bound for Cairo stow away their luggage in the overhead compartments prior to take-off from Luxor International Airport in southern Egypt, on March 13, 2020.  / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI

"I have had no work for nearly a week. Zero!" the guide said.

Egypt, however, has gone to great lengths to assure the world it remained a safe destination despite the outbreak.

In the past week, authorities have conducted random checks on Nile cruise passengers, introduced screening at hotels and airports, and imposed measures to ensure food and beverages theyserved at such venues were virus-free.

Broader measures included an indefinite ban on large gatherings and the suspension of sports activities, including competitive fixtures.

The judicial authorities announced the closure of courts from Monday.

The use of swimming pools at sports clubs has also been banned along with that of gyms and fitness studios.

A 10-day halt to prison visits has been enacted amid growing calls by social media users for the conditional release of prisoners held in protective custody. Earlier this month, Iran – the hardest-hit country in the region – conditionally released 54,000 prisoners to stem the spread among detainees.

The Egyptian government has also decreed that the sermon at the Friday prayers is restricted to 15 minutes and cancel all mosque activity outside the five daily prayers.

On Sunday, the government said it was closing all religious shrines across the country to the public for two weeks.