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The Egyptian experience with the Covid-19 pandemic

Brigadier Gen (ret) Tarek Mohamed Galal 

Senior Researcher, Crisis & Disaster Management Dept., Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), Egyptian Cabinet; NESA Alumnus

The Covid-19 virus is spreading all over the world and causing panic everywhere.  Thousands of new infections and hundreds of deaths are announced daily, and many cities and even entire countries are under total closure directives, as they close their air, land, and maritime borders and have cancelled festivals and annual events.

In the first stage of the outbreak, many underestimated the risks and there were attempts to conceal the truth from the public despite some doctors and scientists sounding the alarm.  This dreaded virus does not recognize borders and moves quickly through societies as it puts tremendous strains on governments already taxed in providing basic services. The virus has aggravated limited healthcare systems in many developing countries. The crisis has forced governments to take decisions for which they were ill-prepared. It has also put in question the strength of the health insurance system in various governments to deal with these types of unpredicted health emergencies. This is especially evident in the case of African countries. Africa already suffers from extreme poverty, climate change, and deteriorating living conditions. Coupled with ongoing internal conflicts and terrorism, intolerance/exclusion, extremism, border (in)-security, illicit and transnational crimes, and many other problems, there has been additional strains on their financial budgets for health insurance for their citizens and their ability to deal with new emerging crises and disasters such as the pandemic.

In the case of Egypt, the most important action by the government was building on the trust and respect with its citizens as it made hard and proactive decisions early. This was a new approach for the government in Egypt focused on transparency and decisiveness. Many precautionary policy directives were taken even before the crisis reached Egypt. The result was that unlike many countries in the world, the Egyptian government was able to transform the crisis into an opportunity to increase confidence between it and the citizens, where the Egyptian citizen felt safe for the first time and the state’s willingness to prioritize citizens’ lives and health above politics.

The plan for crisis-management of the pandemic was built on several stages and provided a set of options for decision-makers. Options were weighed and once decisions were made, the results were analyzed and fed back into the decision cycle. It was important to measure the levels of relative success of each decision, the impact of timing and anticipate and plan for any negative effects that might result. A variety of issues were addressed as the Egyptian government crafted its policies and decisions, namely:

  • Following the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO) and all relevant treatment protocols to curb the outbreak.
  • Integration and cooperation between the various state agencies while building trust between the government and the people.
  • Anticipating the immediate impact of these decisions on the social and economic situation of citizens, especially in case of the shortage of stocks of supplies and commodities necessary for subsistence in light of a slowdown or even a halt in production.
  • Understanding the resulting economic impact on the country, overtaxing the state’s general budget with new and unplanned financial burdens and dealing with the negative repercussions on the rate of growth of the country’s national product, inflation rates, the flow of funds and financial revenues of the country, such as tourism revenues, Suez Canal transit fees for commercial ships, and the transfer of foreign funds from abroad.
  • Examining and learning from the experiences of developed and other countries that preceded Egypt’s actions. The goal was to make the most informed decisions despite the difficulty and non-traditional nature of the crisis at hand.

To address the crisis, the Egyptian government prepared and analyzed several scenarios to confront the dangers of the spread of the virus in Egypt. The approach was divided into several stages and the transition from each stage to the next stage was based on the degree of virus spread, the numbers of infected, the mortality rate, and the recovery rate among the population. This supplemented the analysis and measurement of the success rate of government decisions at every stage.

The government took several steps in the first and early stages of action. First, the Ministry of Health in Egypt cooperated with the World Health Organization (WHO), maximized preparedness in all health facilities, especially fever and chest hospitals, and expanded the monitoring department in the quarantine sections of the entry ports (air/marine/land). It also raised the degree of readiness and preparedness in all state institutions and agencies, especially the army and police. In addition, it continued to closely follow the global situation and WHO recommendations taking all necessary precautions and preventive measures. The series of decisions and actions taken by the government to address the crisis are summarized as follows:

  • Forming a high committee of concerned ministers headed by the Prime Minister, to follow the situation closely, as well as setting up a specialized scientific committee to study the best scientific method to confront the corona virus.
  • Activating a crisis management room in the Egyptian Ministry of Health with the participation of representatives from all ministries and relevant authorities in the country.
  • Accelerating flights by the National Aviation Company to evacuate at the government’s expense the Egyptians from the Chinese city of “Wuhan”, and put them under quarantine for a period of 14 days in one of the hotels equipped with the latest medical devices and located in a remote uninhabited area on one of the Egyptian beaches. This was effective in controlling the spread of the virus.
  • Raising societal awareness regarding the danger of the virus, focusing on the spirit of partnership between the government and the people in taking decisions while stressing citizens’ responsibilities to protect themselves, their families and others from infection with the virus, by urging encouraging good personal habits of sanitation and protection. The media outlets played a critical role in educating the population and explaining government actions and plans.
  • Fortifying the home-front by providing all services, postponing some benefits and obligations such as the payment of certain types of taxes, the renewal of some licenses and other obligations, as well as taking decisions that ensure the preservation of strategic commodity reserves, and controlling the prices in the local market in anticipation of potential price gauging.

 

With the passage of time and the continued positive results, the government’s decisions shifted to a new set of measures to confront the crisis and reduce the further spread of the virus in Egypt. These have included:

  • Continuing the Supreme Committee chaired by the Prime Minister, as well as the specialized scientific committee to follow the situation, and the formation of a crisis management group headed by the Prime Minister to take immediate precautionary measures as required.
  • Activating the Crisis Management Operations Room, in the Council of Ministers, which was formed with the participation of representatives of all ministries and agencies concerned with crisis management in the country to track developments.
  • Continuing the awareness-raising measures and suspending studies in schools and universities, stopping all large gatherings of citizens, suspending performances held in cinemas and theater, and suspending parties, festivals and any large events.
  • Suspending flights, closing the airspace to international flights while allowing tourists to return to their countries after completing their tourism programs or according to their governments’ directives, and forcing all tourist villages and places of visits and accommodation for tourists to take the necessary measures to sterilize and disinfect those facilities, and putting all workers and those involved with tourists under sanitary isolation for a period of 14 days.
  • Reducing the numbers of employees in the units of the state’s administrative apparatus and granting paid holidays to employees with chronic diseases, the elderly, and women who have children of compulsory and school age, as well as allowing remote online work from home.
  • Assigning the specialized units in the army to take the necessary measures to sterilize and disinfect all government buildings, streets, places of worship, subways, trains, and mass public transportation.
  • Continuing to fortify the home-front, and take all measures to provide services, maintain strategic commodity reserves, and control prices in the local market.
  • Raising the maximum level of preparedness in all health facilities and reviewing all cases coming from countries and areas affected by the disease while taking all measures necessary to prevent, confine and follow up on any confirmed cases to ensure that the disease does not spread.

Based on increasing rates of infected people and the emergence of new positive cases in Egypt, added decisions were taken as follows:

  • Prohibiting the movement of citizens on all public roads; stopping all public and private mass transportation, starting from 7 pm until 6 am; closing all commercial and craft shops, including shops selling goods, commercial centers and malls from 5 pm until 6 am daily, with complete closures on Friday and Saturday.
  • Immediate closing of any gathering places where there are cases of infection or possible hotspots of infection.
  • Closing all restaurants, where only deliveries to homes are allowed.
  • Closing all sports clubs, youth centers and gyms, and suspending all sports activities.
  • Suspending all services provided by the ministries to citizens (real estate, traffic, etc.) except for health offices and birth and death registration.
  • Taking economic measures to deal with the crisis for the most heavily impacted economic sectors.
  • Continuing to work to reduce the size of the government workforce in government departments, while encouraging the practice of remote work online.
  • Continuing the work by the Ministry of Health to monitor the global epidemiological situation around the clock; activate the disease preparedness and response plan; publish and distribute manuscripts, publications, and guidelines for the virus; activate epidemiological surveillance within the places of health service, especially hospitals; and launch a campaign through the Mental Health trusteeship to avoid the negative emotional and psychological effects of the virus
  • Forming a committee to discuss the situation of Egyptians stranded abroad, and scheduling air flights for those Egyptian citizens who want to return to Egypt.
  • Providing a helping hand to a number of countries where the epidemic was widespread (China, Italy, and others).

 

There is no doubt that the state’s progress in the economic reform plan contributed to strengthening Egypt’s capabilities and its ability to face the effects of the Coronavirus Crisis.  Prior to the pandemic, the country had a solid economic foundation in place. This has allowed Egypt to successfully wage its war against the virus and against the repercussions of its spread in the world.

On the global level, the spread of the virus has proven that the world needs to reconsider how it deals with existing global problems, disasters and crises, and that sciences, knowledge, and information must be freely exchanged between scientists and countries around the world. It is increasingly clear to all that the peoples of the world are interconnected and that cooperation is the best way to address threats that know no borders, such as the pandemic. Also important is how globalization ties us together economically. After the pandemic is over, we hope we all appreciate that solidarity, complementarity and cooperation are the only way to preserve our economies, our countries, and the survival of all peoples.

An important question remains highlighted by the outbreak of the virus around the world – will the outbreak of Covid-19 reshape international relations for the better? And what effect will this have on the “new world order” and the new roles of the world’s superpowers. Will the established global system which was governed by a set of agreements and treaties that ruled its alliances and blocs before the emergence of the virus continue? Or will we see a new order emerge post-Covid-19?

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