Lockdown tightened in Egypt but concern mounts over safety of army officers

 "We will lose a lot if we do not deal with this issue decisively," Sisi said. "We are no exception."
Sunday 29/03/2020
Egyptian municipality workers disinfect the Giza pyramids necropolis on the south-western outskirts of Cairo, March 25. (AFP)
On alert. Egyptian municipality workers disinfect the Giza pyramids necropolis on the south-western outskirts of Cairo, March 25. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egyptian authorities ordered a nationwide night-time curfew to narrow the COVID-19 outbreak amid hopes that keeping the country’s 100 million people at home would contain the infections.

On March 25, Egypt reported its highest number of COVID-19 infections for a single day -- 54 new cases and one fatality. The country, as of March 28, had 536 infections and 30 fatalities reported earlier.

The curfew went into effect March 25, two days after an army general died of the coronavirus-related disease, the second fatality among Egypt’s military leaders. The generals’ death raised concern about the safety of army personnel as Egypt braces for possibly more drastic measures to contain the disease.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described COVID-19 as the most serious threat to face the country and the world. "We will lose a lot if we do not deal with this issue decisively," Sisi said March 23. "We are no exception."

The night-time curfew includes suspension of transport on highways. It enforces a total halt of transport on highways across the country on Fridays and Saturdays. Those violating the curfew are subject to a fine of $255 or jail time.

The curfew is the latest in a series of measures taken by Egypt to address the coronavirus outbreak.

On March 24, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli extended the closure of the schools and the universities for two weeks, following an initial 2-week closure imposed March 15.

Religious authorities shuttered mosques and churches on March 21 about a week after football matches were cancelled and all cultural events suspended. Egypt suspended all flights to and from the country on March 19. It shut its shopping malls, closed tens of thousands of coffee and barbers' shops

The Ministry of Health and Population has instituted an awareness campaign about how to avoid contagion. Health specialists have been reaching out to the public on their mobile phones, social media and on television.

Cairo allocated $6.4 billion for the national response to COVID-19. Some funds will be pumped into the Health Ministry budget and some will support millions of pensioners and poor and working-class Egyptians.

The curfew is the most drastic measure by the government to curtail COVID-19 infections.

"At least, this will contribute to reining in infections," said Nagwa al-Shafae, a member of the board of the Medical Association, the independent guild of the country's medical doctors. "The hope is that this move will slow down the spread of the disease before things get worse."

Egypt's fear is that infections will rise to more than 1,000, considered the tipping point in the country's ability to cope with the disease. After that, health specialists say they will not be able to trace origins of infections and hospitals would become too overwhelmed to deal adequately with patients.

"The authorities will have to take stricter measures to prevent an outbreak," said Osama Abdel Hay, another member of the board of the Medical Association.

Health Ministry officials have tested 25,000 people for coronavirus. State-run hospitals conduct the tests for free. The ministry increased the number of testing centres and each of Egypt's 27 provinces has a major centre. Officials instructed hospital administrators to carry out only critical and emergency surgeries, postponing all other procedures.

Egyptian Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed said she was working to bring the number of daily infections down so the hospitals would have room for new arrivals.

"An outbreak always dwarves the health abilities of states, regardless of the level of these abilities," Zayed said.

Health-care facilities are facing a dire shortage of face masks, gloves, other personal protection equipment and ventilators. Some private businessmen have donated money to acquire needed supplies.

The Ministry of Health has called on health professionals and other citizens to volunteer under the national COVID-19 response plan at hospitals.

Madbouli said the night-time curfew would likely be part of a series of measures to confront the pandemic. "Citizens' failure to abide by distancing calls has led to a rise in the number of infections," he said. "More drastic measures can be taken if things get worse."