Coronavirus: Egypt is reopening after a grim month

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Egyptians are relieved to put June behind them after the month saw the worst coronavirus death toll so far, but July brings fresh fears after the government removed most of the measures in place since March to contain the pandemic.

Wednesday saw a further lifting of restrictions, with Egypt’s airports opening for business for the first time since March. EgyptAir, the country’s national carrier, had 14 scheduled flights on Wednesday in addition to the start of a 33-flight operation with other airlines to bring home 5,225 Egyptians stranded abroad.

Several tourist sites also reopened for visitors on Wednesday, including the famed Giza Pyramids and the Egyptian museum.

But Egyptians are approaching the coming weeks with trepidation after June brought more cases and deaths caused by Covid-19 than the previous four months combined. With the month’s statistics making for harrowing reading, there are concerns that the government may have acted in haste when it lifted the majority of restrictions on June 27.

The government has countered that, with a vaccine yet to be developed, Egyptians must learn to live with Covid-19 while diligently adhering to preventive measures, including social distancing, wearing masks in public and embracing heightened hygiene practices.

Some Egyptians, however, are nostalgically looking back at the perceived peace and quiet that replaced their hectic city lives during three months of lockdown, which included a nighttime curfew, shuttered restaurants and cafes, shops closing at 5pm and the cancellation of cinema and theatre shows.

Public beaches and parks, however, remain closed.

“So many people are out on the streets now, cars blow their horns late at night and the roar of muscle motorbikes shatter the quiet of the night,” lamented a 58-year-old mother of two who lives in a leafy suburb south of Cairo, Egypt’s capital. “Life was so much better under the curfew,” she told The National.

People pray while observing safe distancing at the Al Emam Aly Mosque in Cairo. EPA

A waiter carries an order at a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo after authorities relaxed the lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus. AFP

A worker prepares an order at a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo after authorities relaxed the lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus. AFP

A note asking people to follow the instructions of the Health Ministry is pictured on the door of a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo. AFP

A worker disinfects the door of a cafe in the Egyptian capital Cairo. AFP

A customer gets his temperature measured by a worker in a cafe in Cairo. EPA

A waiter serves customers in a cafe after months of lockdown in Cairo. Reuters

A woman looks at clothes at a store after months of lockdown in Cairo. Reuters

Youth play football at a local sport centre after months of lockdown in Cairo. Reuters

Churchgoers wear face masks and maintain a minimum social distance between each other as they attend a mass at the Armenian Catholic Church in Cairo. EPA

A girl reads a book in a cafe in Cairo. EPA

People take part in a dawn prayer inside Amr Ibn Al-As mosque in Cairo on June 27, 2020 as Egypt eased restrictions on public prayers, imposed to contain its coronavirus outbreak. EPA

Worshippers are required to wear masks alongside other safety guidelines such as limited capacity at mosques, the use of personal prayer mats, temperature screening and social distancing. EPA

People pray while observing safe distancing at the Al Emam Aly Mosque in Cairo. EPA

Egyptians attend the Fajr prayer inside the Al Rahman Mosque in the Cairo's Maadi neighbourhood. Reuters

A worshipper records the dawn prayer inside Amr Ibn Al-As mosque in Cairo. EPA

Worshippers wait to perform dawn prayers at the Amr Ibn Al-As in Cairo. EPA

A volunteer wearing a face mask sprays disinfectant inside a mosque before it reopens to the public after three months. Reuters

A volunteer disinfects the entrance to a mosque in Cairo. Reuters

A volunteer sprays disinfectant in bathrooms at a Cairo mosque as it prepares to receive worshippers. Reuters

A volunteer wearing a face mask sprays disinfectant inside a mosque in Cairo. Reuters

The latest relaxation of the lockdown has allowed public transport to operate until midnight and tea houses - the places where millions of Egyptians gather daily to drink tea and coffee or play backgammon and dominos - are permitted to open until 10 pm. Water pipes remain banned for now and government departments are operating with a skeleton staff to avoid the spread of the disease.

It doesn’t require sharp observation skills to see that some Egyptians are taking a more casual approach to the pandemic, with many not wearing masks in tea houses or on public transport and a general failure to enforce social distancing in public spaces.

The government, for its part, disagrees with critics of reopening the country, arguing that a sustained lockdown would cause an economic meltdown that will wipe out the hard-won gains made during years of harsh austerity policies to overhaul an economy battered by the turmoil that followed a popular 2011 uprising.

The government said that continuing lockdown would push millions of daily-wage Egyptians and their families into destitution. Businessman have supported the government, claiming that a tanked economy could be deadlier than Covid-19.

While many Egyptians are anxiously waiting to see whether the reopening of the country will be reflected in the number of Covid-19 cases and fatalities, they are horrified by the June figures. Government officials have said the curve would level-off in July before it’s flattened by mid-month.

As of Tuesday night, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 68,311. Of that number, 63.2 per cent, were recorded in June alone. When it comes to fatalities, the total number since the outbreak in February is 2,953 of which 67.1 per cent were recorded last month.

The final week of the month was particularly grim, with 10,170 recorded cases, or 14.8 per cent of the total number. Covid-19-related deaths stood at 588 in the last week of June, amounting to 19.9 per cent of all fatalities since February.

”It’s difficult to enforce social distancing when Egyptians are known to love to socialise in crowded places,” said a businessman who runs an upmarket restaurant and a cafe in Cairo. “So, when authorities said cafes and restaurants will re-open but must operate at only 25 per cent capacity, I said they must be joking,” he told The National.

“I rearranged the tables to conform with social distancing and my restaurant looks really ugly now.”

Updated: July 1, 2020 09:56 PM

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