Sandstorm brings more gloom for Egyptians

Visibility obscured across much of country dealing with coronavirus and aftermath of massive rainstorm

A man wearing a protective face mask walks at the underground Al Shohadaa "Martyrs" metro station while Egypt ramps up its efforts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo, Egypt March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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A sandstorm complete with howling wind and significantly reduced visibility lashed much of Egypt on Monday, adding to the woes of a country already struggling with an outbreak of coronavirus and the aftermath of a ruinous rainstorm earlier this month.

The death toll from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, shot up to 14 and the number of infected people hit 327, a surge of four and 33 respectively over a 24-hour period ending on Sunday night.

The fatalities and infections are relatively low given that Egypt has a population of more than 100 million who live in less than 10 per cent of its area and who have shown a shockingly casual attitude toward the danger posed by the deadly virus now ripping through the world.

“Should you be incredulous that God has so far been looking out for us? You think that God almighty will not protect Egypt?” President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said in televised comments on Sunday, responding to  suspicions aired on social media that his government was hiding the true figures.

“We are a 100 million and must handle this with extreme seriousness, caution and alertness so we, God willing, can safely emerge from this,” the Egyptian leader told some dozen women gathered at an opulent conference room at his suburban presidential palace in Cairo.

The women and the handful of top officials in attendance sat at least 1.5 metres apart at a giant round table, observing the "social distancing" recommended worldwide to avoid infection.

Giant street billboards sprang around Cairo on Monday with the slogan “protect yourself, protect your country” and advice on protecting against the virus.

Monday’s sandstorm raised temperatures to unseasonal highs of up to 30°C with winds of up to 65 kph. The poor visibility prompted warnings to motorists to drive cautiously.

Although sandstorms are routine during the spring, the latest one came as Egypt was still recovering from its heaviest rainstorm in decades on March 12-13. The downpour flooded streets, caused lengthy water and power outages and disrupted phone and internet services. Shoddily-built homes in a poor Cairo suburb were washed away by the rain and gale-force winds. The government has set aside millions of pounds to rebuild homes and repair damage to properties.

“It never happened in Egypt’s contemporary history that we have weather, rain and floods like that,” Mr El Sisi lamented on Sunday.

Breaking his public silence on the coronavirus outbreak, he warned that failure to follow new regulations limiting social interaction and to take precautions against infection would lead to thousands of new Covid-19 infections in a matter of days. He also urged Egyptians not to hoard goods, assuring them that there would be no shortages since the government had three months of food reserves.

“Please, please, help us get through this very grave crisis,” said the 65-year-old general-turned-president.

Over the past week, the government has suspended university and school classes, banned large gatherings, halted international air travel and set aside 100 billion pounds (Dh23.34bn) to combat the coronavirus. A stimulus package to avoid an economic downturn was also announced to stave off an economic slump. The package included reduced power charges for industries, suspension of taxes on stock market transactions and monetary aid to struggling exporters. Interest rates were cut by three percentage points to encourage investment.