COVID-19 fears put Egypt’s cultural and social life on hold

“We fear that large public gatherings will contribute to spreading the disease,” said Culture Ministry spokesman Mohamed Mounir.

Sunday 22/03/2020
A closed theatre in central Cairo. (Hassan Abddel Zaher)
A closed theatre in central Cairo. (Hassan Abddel Zaher)

Cairo

The lights of the Cairo Opera House are dark and the large space outside the gigantic cultural complex, the symbol of Egypt’s pulsating cultural life, is deserted.

COVID-19 fears have put all cultural activities in Egypt, known as a cultural powerhouse in the Arab region, on hold.

The Egyptian Ministry of Culture suspended all cultural activities as part of measures to stem the proliferation of the coronavirus, which has killed at least six people and infected 200 in Egypt.

Cinemas and theatres were shut down, book-signing ceremonies banned and cultural festivals called off across the country. Artistic fairs and dance and music events were cancelled and foreign artists and delegations were asked not to travel to Egypt.

“The suspension is necessary, given the dangerous nature of the virus,” said Culture Ministry spokesman Mohamed Mounir. “We fear that large public gatherings will contribute to spreading the disease.”

Authorities closed schools and universities, keeping some 20 million students at home; asked most of the country’s 6 million civil servants not to go to work; suspended flights to and from Egypt and postponed all sports activities, including very popular football matches.

Officials said health authorities are closely monitoring Egyptians returning from other countries, especially those with major COVID-19 outbreaks, keeping a close eye on cities and villages where multiple infections have been recorded.

The suspension of popular Nile cruises and flights to and from Egypt, until at least April, was expected to have a severe effect on the country’s tourism sector and national flag carrier, EgyptAir.

Tourism revenues amount to $1 billion a month and the suspension of flights for 15 days would cost EgyptAir $161 million, official estimates stated.

“Despite all the projected losses, these measures are indispensable to prevent a national catastrophe in case things were taken lightly,” said Mohamed al-Ammari, chairman of parliament’s Health Committee. “Theatres, cinemas and cultural centres are breeding grounds for contamination because they are always packed with large numbers of people.”

Among cultural events that have been called off is the Cairo Short Film Festival, which was scheduled for March 15.

The authorities banned the audience at Luxor African Film Festival, which began March 6, and cancelled the event’s closing ceremony. Participants at the festival, including foreign, African and Egyptian cinema directors and specialists, had to undergo COVID-19 tests before they could leave the city.

Taking advantage of the closure, public health authorities are disinfecting cultural centres and sterilising cinemas and theatres, including the Opera House and its several performance areas.

The Ministry of Culture began training workers on digital management tools to facilitate online operation of cultural institutions.

Rock band Massar Egbari, from Alexandria, said it would organise its first online concert to adapt to the lockdown and continue reaching out to its fans.

Band co-founder Ayman Massoud said the concert “is aimed to encourage other bands to do the same while contributing to precautionary measures against COVID-19.”

The ban is disrupting cinema and TV productions that require the presence of a large number of people.

The suspension of cinema and TV works is causing big financial losses to producers who have been racing to complete programmes to be broadcast during Ramadan. The month-long Muslim fasting period, which starts at the end of April, is a prime television period across the Arab region.

“Producers are doing everything possible to complete their works before things get worse,” said Egyptian cinema and TV producer Mohamed al-Adl. “There will be major financial losses for producers who will have to put their works on hold until this emergency ends.”

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