Coronavirus: Fear on the Nile

Thursday 5 March 202002:21 pm
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Multiple nations, in recent days, have reported returning travelers from Egypt testing positive for Corona while Egypt continues to remain silent on the outbreak. There is a great deal we do not know and that is by design: draconian paradigms, like Egypt, excel at disinformation, misinformation and limiting information. We only have to look as far as China or Iran to understand the dangers of such a deadly virus coming into contact with a dictatorial regime suspected of under counting cases and fatalities.

Based on multiple indicators Egypt may become yet another state employing similar methodology in dealing with the outbreak on the banks of the Nile. The world as a whole, says the director of the World Health Organization (W.H.O) , is in “uncharted territory” and nations such as Egypt who look to control the narrative to the detriment of their populations will only make this fight more challenging.

Globally, information pouring in daily, continues to turn evermore grim. On Tuesday, the director of the World Health Organization announced that fatality rates estimated initially to be 2.3% were in fact 3.4%, even though these numbers may be significantly lower since many cases may be undetected and/or untested. These percentages factor in all age groups but in examining the older subsets of 70-79 and 80+ the percentages skyrocket to near 10% and 15% respectively. Frighteningly, medical experts are comparing the current Corona outbreak to the 1957 Influenza Contagion ; an outbreak that left 1 million dead in its wake. Despite attempts to quell panic World Markets continue to experience seismic downward shifts in the percentage points daily, for the most part. The virus continues to gain momentum on a worldwide scale with particular hotspots in China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran, so what does this mean for Egypt and its highly stretched health care infrastructure?

Egypt has 1/2 bed per 1,000 Egyptians in its hospital system, compare with 3.3 beds per 1,000 Israelis. This is not accidental, Egypt spends around 4% of its GDP on health infrastructure compared to the average 10% elsewhere reports the World Bank

Egypt has 1/2 bed for every 1,000 Egyptians in its ailing hospital system, compare with 3.3 beds for every 1,000 Israelis. This is not accidental, Egypt spends slightly over 4% of its annual GDP on health infrastructure in stark contrast to the world which averages nearly 10%, reports the World Bank. A global viral outbreak now uncovers the inner political machinations of societies and Egypt is no exception. Many a minister is chosen for pliability and personal vulnerability over efficacy and experience to turn the minister into an executioner of deep state policy. Coupled with control of the media, these levers facilitate domination of the public narrative at such a sensitive juncture . At the center of the concept of dictatorship is the concept that the regime is always in control of any and all matters, a virus undercuts that notion for it is under no one’s control. In this respect Egypt resembles Iran.  The New York Times put it best this week as it explained how paranoia and secrecy reign in the arena of government response. For autocracies controlling information is no less important the very virus it battles.

When Qatar denied Egyptian travelers entry into the country it focused ever-growing doubts about Egyptian testing and what the government may be holding back informationally about the spread of the virus. Kuwait and Angola quicjly followed Qatar. There are, clearly, valid concerns.  A nation of 100 million, Egypt has only reported two cases of the coronavirus thus far. Alarmingly multiple nations, including France, Canada, the U.S and Taiwan, have reported travelers returning home from trips to Egypt testing positive for the virus. Central question here is quite obvious: how could, at least 10 cases of viral infection come from travelers to Egypt without Egypt having far more cases than it admits?

We only have to look as far as China or Iran to understand the dangers of the deadly Corona virus coming into contact with a dictatorial regime. What’s Egypt’s best kept health secret?

Additionally, if such a large number of foreigners were positive and not quarantined during their stay in Egypt, how is it possible that none of those they came in contact with have yet to test positive? In New York, for example, when a lawyer tested positive on March 3 and the source of his infection was unknown the first question posed was who did he come into contact with. The very next day it was discovered that he infected his wife, son, daughter, and a neighbor.

Yet, somehow, Egyptian governmental response could be summarized by two eyebrow raising examples: the minister of Health, Hala Zayed, heading to China to deliver medical aid and a statement in the semi-governmental newspaper trumpeting how “Egypt is one step ahead of Corona”. What are Egyptian authorities hiding? At its core, the problem is one of lack in transparency and a lack of planning, with the two, effectively, intertwined at the hip.

An Egyptian human rights activist drew gasps earlier in the week when he publicly questioned the government about 25 possible cases of coronavirus infection being held in Military hospitals. The specificity of the questions were worrisome, indicating, for example, there are five cases in Tanta Military Hospital alone, three of which are from the same family. Equally valid was the question concerning WHO access to military and police hospital records. In police states like Egypt all matters involving police or military, near or far, are as secret as the process of mummification. Just as with Iran secrecy leads to paranoia within the ranks of, both the deep state and the public. An informal poll to gauge public perception of government handling of the potential crisis, unsurprisingly, after only 30 minutes, and 150+ votes, returned figures of 82% regime lying about the spread of Corona and 18% siding with the government line. While unscientific the poll reflects an appalling lack of trust between the two national partners .

Many a minister is chosen for pliability and personal vulnerability over experience to ensure the minister is a tool of state policy. Coupled with media control, these levers facilitate domination of the public narrative at such a sensitive juncture

Government knows this, and, earlier this week,  Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouli sought to dispel claims of a cover-up as mere “rumor” . A dearth of technical know-how and medical resources funnels into the fear. Ironically, the health Minister’s trip to China, meant in large part to glean information from a China most harmed by the virus and most experienced in combating it, also showed that Egypt lacks test kits, important in fighting the deadly disease. China gifted Egypt 1000 test kits and the local press emphasized this , all the while ignoring the obvious: how many kits does Egypt possess and are Egyptian health workers, at large, trained properly on detecting the virus?

While the political side of the equation for a North Korea like regime is about controlling the narrative, the political and economic side introduce an equally deadly polemic. Bluntly, lack of planning and spending on health will retard any efforts to identify, isolate and treat the Coronavirus.        

In 1967, as the Israelis pounded Egypt’s Air Force, Egyptian media blared about imaginary Egyptian successes. Sawt El Arab, The most famous Egyptian radio station broadcast news of “false victories’’, one cannot ignore propaganda's role in undermining government’s narrative in combating Corona. The public is not buying what the government is selling.

Though, clearly, with minimal information, it is all but impossible to assert there are cases of Corona being willfully and intentionally hidden from the public. Nonetheless, two things are equally true: Dictatorships have plenty of incentive to hide a possible outbreak and Egypt is poorly equipped to deal with such a potential outbreak.

Know this, in the words of American pandemic specialist Jeremy Konyndyk, “transparency about case counts are essential because you can't fight what you can’t see’’. Should matters deteriorate quickly, even a regime like Sisi’s will have to become transparent or perish.

For now, we wait...and fear.


*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22

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