In this watershed moment, as the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Egypt exceeds 5,000, we find ourselves at a fork in the road, giving us only two options. The first is to maintain the closures and the curfew, which will lead to complete paralysis in the country, and the second is to return to normal life so that the wheels start to turn, thus preventing potential economic and social crises. But what are the scenarios for going down each of the two roads? What are the risks of implementing one over the other? And what are the possible gains?
I will discuss this based on the available economic and social data. I will not make one road triumph over the other, and I will not be biased toward either of them.
The preventive measures taken by the Egyptian government against the spread of coronavirus have undoubtedly yielded relatively positive fruits thus far. These include the absence of an upsurge in the number of cases and deaths, as happened in many large European countries. In addition, the health care system was maintained and did not collapse. Hospitals are still able to accommodate the increasing number of cases, the central laboratories dedicated to testing swabs are still operating efficiently and have an abundance of test materials, and university accommodations have been opened to receive quarantine cases — a decision that gave the health system ample opportunity to resist and expand horizontally.
Egypt has reached this state through imposing a partial curfew, suspending many recreational, community and educational activities, suspending flights to and from other countries, and reducing the number of employees in government and official organizations.
The danger of going down the first road lies in an expected collapse in the economic situation of a developing country and emerging market like Egypt. In March, the Central Bank of Egypt used about $5.4 billion in foreign exchange reserves to cover the needs of the market, bridge the decline in foreign investments and international portfolios, ensure that strategic goods are imported, and meet international obligations related to the state’s external indebtedness. On top of the sectors affected by the virus is tourism, which lost many of its workers early on due to the suspension of international flights. The day labor sector has also been impacted, as it depends on daily income, and, despite what the state is trying to provide to workers in this sector, it is not enough to maintain their normal lives.
In recent days, a government spokesman said that Egypt was negotiating a loan with the International Monetary Fund to help it fight the virus. If Egypt gets the loan, this will mean stricter measures that will affect the largest segment of society. The real risk is that the lockdown will disrupt Egypt’s societal structure, which would be similar to the situation that accompanied the post-2011 period of political instability. A large segment of the citizens may deviate from their social paths to unwanted ones, leading to a clear deterioration in the structure of society. Things, in this case, would change from a fight against the coronavirus to facing a situation similar to famine.
The true lifesaver if we are to go down the second road is changing citizens’ behavior
Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy
The second road would see the return of normal life to Egypt’s streets and the gradual pumping of blood into society’s arteries, so that we could truly return to normality but with greater concern for our lives, strict measures to implement social distancing and penalties for violators — if it comes to that.
The risk here is that the number of cases and deaths may increase if Egyptian citizens remain in a state of dependency and neglect. Therefore, the true lifesaver if we are to go down the second road is changing citizens’ behavior. This should be done by the citizens themselves, along with more factual awareness-raising media messages and more preventive measures and sanitization facilities in institutions.
Overcrowding and unhealthy habits are the most common factors that have caused the virus to spread in Egypt, so the solution would be to address those two factors. There are many solutions to overcrowding at government agencies, markets, and private sector institutions. For example, working hours can be divided and sites can be expanded by utilizing neglected areas, provided they are sanitized. Meanwhile, addressing unhealthy habits is difficult but not impossible. The state should ensure the use of clear and frank media messages to raise awareness of the seriousness of the habits that cause the spread of the virus.
Europe is on this second road. It is set to restore life again after suffering great economic losses, which the world’s most powerful economies will not be able to overcome easily, much less a country like Egypt. Germany has decided to reassess the situation there, while other countries that were severely impacted by the virus have managed to overcome the peak period.
Whatever road Egypt chooses in the coming period, I believe the citizens have made significant gains, including understanding the importance of hygiene and the dangers of smoking and overcrowding. The virus is said to spread through contact with infected people. Let us make this an opportunity to build a culture of dealing with patients in general and to eliminate the bad habits we see in government hospitals. Among the other gains is that the government has learned the importance of developing the health sector to face serious diseases, and I believe it has placed this among its high priorities for the future.
I also think the coronavirus crisis is a chance for us to take an interest in science, because only science can save the world from this pandemic.
• Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy