Egypt’s poor fear both virus, hunger during crisis

The coronavirus hardships come at a time when Egyptians would normally be preparing for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Saturday 11/04/2020
More vulnerable than others. A homeless man sleeps during a curfew in Cairo, March 27.(Reuters)
More vulnerable than others. A homeless man sleeps during a curfew in Cairo, March 27.(Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian measures to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic are taking a toll on the country’s poor who, without jobs, are struggling to make ends meet.

Cairo has introduced strict lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus, including closing or reducing hours for businesses, outlets and cafes to prevent overcrowding.

Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs as a result and many fear a long-term recession.

“I have been staying at home for two weeks now,” said Nasser Abdelmonem, a house painter in his late forties. “I cannot keep doing this for long.”

Egypt’s move to close down most non-essential activity is part of an aggressive strategy it feels it needs to stop an outbreak its health-care system would not be prepared for. Apart from the aforementioned closures, authorities have also suspended all flights to and from Egypt and ordered the closure of thousands of tourist facilities.

Only pharmacies, grocery stores and restaurants are allowed to function with strict guidelines.

Authorities have taken some measures to help provide a cushion for the poor who are struggling to cope. Banks have been ordered to delay debt repayment and to accept requests for financial support from irregular and self-employed workers.

More than 1 million workers have so far submitted requests for financial support.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has allocated 100 billion pounds (roughly $6.4 billion) for a national response to the disease, but this effort has so far fallen short of meeting the needs of people such as Abdelmonem, who, with four children, fears he will quickly burn through his savings. “I will have to search for work to feed my family soon,” Abdelmonem said.

He and millions of other poor Egyptians are caught between infection fears and the prospect of hunger.

As of April 10, Egypt has recorded some 1,699 cases of COVID-19 and 103 deaths.

Egyptian Health and Population Minister Hala Zayed noted that the country’s infection rate is relatively low at six cases per 1 million.

“This is a low rate, compared with the international rate of ten cases per every one million,” Zayed said in her daily briefing on the disease.

Whatever the numbers, Egypt’s poor are enduring significant hardship during the crisis.

Taxi driver Mahmud Mohamed, who goes out every day in an attempt to earn enough money to feed his three children, said the streets are now “deserted wherever I go.”

“The people who have to go to work in these circumstances do not have enough money to pay a taxi fare,” he added

The coronavirus hardships come at a time when Egyptians would normally be preparing for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to start late April.

In the weeks prior to Ramadan, Egyptians generally stock up on large amounts of food, including fruits and vegetables.

“They need to take more robust action to deal with the economic ramification of the current emergency for the poor,”

MP Ahmed Tantawi said. “The cost of inaction will be high, including by bringing about a recession that will raise unemployment and consequently poverty.”

About 8% of Egypt’s workforce of 28.9 million were unemployed in the first quarter of 2020.

Economists expect the country’s joblessness rate to increase even more in the coming period.

Together with the rise in unemployment, Egypt’s poverty rate of 32.5% is set to rise.

“These poor people will bear the full brunt of measures taken in the fight against the disease,” said Alia al-Mahdi, the former dean of the College of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University. “The government needs to consider all options to help them, including by offering them direct cash aid.”

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