Egyptian authorities under fire over unrestricted entry of Chinese despite virus risk

China invests around $11 billion in Egypt and as many as 1,300 Chinese companies operate in Egypt.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Egyptian Quarantine Authority employees prepare to scan body temperature for incoming travellers at Cairo International Airport, February. (AFP)
Untrustworthy procedure. Egyptian Quarantine Authority employees prepare to scan body temperature for incoming travellers at Cairo International Airport, February. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egyptian authorities have come under fire for allowing Chinese tourists and investors entry in apparent disregard of coronavirus-related risks. More than 100 Chinese tourists arrived in Cairo International Airport on February 29.

Their arrival came as Egyptians expressed concern about the effectiveness of Egypt’s quarantine measures and procedures to discover travellers infected with the virus.

Part of the fear stems from a lack of confidence in state institutions, including in the national health system. There is also a feeling that something is being hidden, especially with some countries confirming infections for people who had arrived from Egypt.

“There is an urgent need for banning the entry of tourists and businessmen,” said Bassant Fahmi, a member of the Committee on Economic Affairs at the Egyptian parliament. “A decision should be taken in this regard, even if it will cause losses to the economy.”

Egypt raised alert levels at its entry points and started applying strict quarantine measures, including putting people entering the country under close supervision for 14 days after their arrival.

Egypt was one of the first countries to airlift its nationals from China. Hundreds of Egyptians were flown from various Chinese cities, including the central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. When they arrived, the returnees were taken to a quarantine facility in the north-western province of Matrouh.

Egypt reported its second coronavirus case March 2 — a Canadian oil worker who later tested negative for the virus. This was about two weeks after Egypt reported its first virus infection, a Chinese national. No infections have been officially confirmed among Egyptians.

Some parliamentarians expressed satisfaction with government preparedness. “Health authorities do their best to prevent the virus from entering,” said Hala Mistkli, a member of the Committee on Health in the Egyptian parliament. “All the necessary measures are taken at the ports of entry and they are paying off.”

However, there is obvious concern among the populace. Face masks have sold out at many pharmacies and some shops that have stocks of the masks have been selling them at four times original prices.

“The authorities need to deal with this issue with a higher degree of transparency,” said Ehab al-Taher, secretary-general of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, the independent guild of the country’s medical doctors. “Denying the presence of the virus will cause it to spread like wildfire.”

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli travelled to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada to check measures applied to tourists arriving at Hurghada International Airport.

He said the government did not hide anything concerning the coronavirus. Egypt, he added, had taken measures since the virus outbreak in China, including formation of a national panel that decides which actions should be taken.

The World Health Organisation commended the Egypt’s measures and said Cairo has been coordinating its action closely and transparently.

Egyptians have been sharing advice on social media on how to avoid virus infection, including regular hand washing and keeping away from crowded places, especially on Egypt’s congested public transport.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sent Health Minister Hala Zayed to China on March 2 to deliver a message of support and acquire information about how China is dealing with the virus.

Chinese health authorities gave Zayed technical documents on the virus, Egyptian media said. There were reports that China would share virus detection equipment with Egypt.

The Health Ministry has tested more than 1,400 Egyptians for the virus but none of them proved positive. The ministry has prepared a plan for dealing with an outbreak, including the evacuation of schools, universities and workplaces.

Egypt’s failure to ban the entry of foreigners, as other countries have, shows the limits to which countries heavily dependent on tourism will go to protect their citizens in times of a health crisis.

The tourism sector contributes around 15% of Egypt’s annual national income, the Ministry of Tourism said. This year, Egypt was hoping to attract 500,000 tourists from China, up from 160,000 in 2018 and 300,000 in 2019.

China invests around $11 billion in Egypt and as many as 1,300 Chinese companies operate in Egypt. Chinese investors have become an important part of Egypt’s economic life, especially in the industrial and mining sectors.

Chinese companies are constructing large parts of Egypt’s new administrative capital.

“The economy will suffer greatly if the authorities ban the entry of foreigners, including tourists,” Fahmi said, “but this will be a lot less costly than a virus outbreak.”