Egypt confirms 2nd coronavirus case, coordinates with China and Saudi Arabia as officials criticize gov’t response

The second reported case of an individual in Egypt who has contracted COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, was announced in a joint statement by the World Health Organization and the Health Ministry on Monday. 

The statement did not provide any further details about the case, apart from assurances that all the necessary and strict preventative measures have been taken with those who were in contact with the patient.

However, Mada Masr learned from an informed source that the infected man is a Canadian national who works for the oil and natural gas company Apache in the Western Desert and arrived in Egypt 16 days ago.  

A week after his arrival, he started noticing symptoms of the common cold, according to the source. He visited the health clinic at his workplace in the Salam gas field in the Western Desert, where he was advised to stay in his place of residence while continuing to take flu medicine. But a few days later, he developed a fever, prompting his doctors to suspect coronavirus, especially after they learned that his family members in Canada were suffering similar symptoms. The doctors decided to transfer the man to Nagila Hospital in Marsa Matrouh, where Egyptian authorities had set up quarantine facilities in early February. The patient tested positive for COVID-19. By that point, he had spent a total of nine days in his workplace since his symptoms started showing. 

Mada Masr obtained a letter signed by Health Ministry Chief of Staff Dr. Mohamed Abdelwahab, in which he addressed the CEO of the Khalda Petroleum Company, Apache’s partner company in Egypt, asking him to prevent any individual from entering or exiting the Salam gas field. Abdelwahab also requested the halt of employee leave until further measures are taken. The informed first source also confirmed that all those who interacted with the Canadian patient are now under observation. 

Mada Masr also obtained a copy of a letter dated March 2 written by Khalda Petroleum Assistant Director Said Abdelmoneim and addressed to the Petroleum Air Services airline, requesting the halt of flights to the Maliha Airport in the Western Desert due to “emergency circumstances.”

Mada Masr tried to reach Khalda Petroleum’s Director of Medical Affairs and Assistant Chief  Dr. Ahmed Shereen, who asked us to call back, but he did not respond to our subsequent calls. 

The second positive case comes as authorities had maintained Egypt is free from coronavirus after the only positive case tested negative. However, there are indications that the spread of the virus may be more extensive. In the past week French, Canadian and Taiwanese authorities reported cases of the virus among tourists who’d traveled to Egypt. Despite these indications, Egyptian authorities have reassured the public that there are no further coronavirus cases and that Egypt is prepared to deal with a virus that will “surely reach us.” Egypt has in recent weeks taken measures to address the situation, consulting with China on public health measures and coordinating with Saudi Arabia to handle canceled pilgrimage trips. But despite the government’s reassurances, some officials have criticized the state’s response, and this unease is beginning to hit the Egyptian economy.

The official responses began on Thursday, when French authorities announced that two members of a tourist group to Egypt had contracted coronavirus, a number updated to six on Friday. 

Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly released a statement in which he said that Egypt is coordinating with France regarding the two French nationals. According to Madbuly, the two French nationals stayed in Egypt from February 6 to 15, and the Health Ministry is now reviewing where they stayed. The ministry is also testing people they came into contact with during their trip.

The ministry announced on the same day that Egypt is coronavirus-free after the first positive case tested negative.

Health Minister Hala Zayed phoned into Amr Adib’s talk show Al-Hekaya (The Story) on MBC Masr on Saturday to cast doubt on the possibility that the French nationals contracted coronavirus in Egypt. According to Zayed, tests have not shown that anyone who came in contact with the French tourist group had been infected. The minister advised citizens to avoid “high-density” public spaces and patients suffering from colds or influenza to stay at home. As a precaution against getting sick, people should frequently wash their hands and eat well, the minister stated. She advised citizens suspected of high fevers or with COVID-19 symptoms to head to a fevers hospital. 

“The coronavirus will probably reach us,” Zayed said. “If it does, 82 percent of us won’t need hospitals or treatment to begin with. They’ll just stay home and get better. Fifteen percent will need hospitals, and our country is ready. The virus will surely reach us, but there’s no fear of that because it isn’t as deadly as people imagine.”

Cabinet spokesperson Nader Saad also appeared on television on Saturday night to assert the state’s readiness to deal with coronavirus, stating that Egypt will procure more advanced thermometers in order to detect the virus.

On Sunday, Egypt lit up the facades of the Citadel and Karnak Temples with China’s flag in a show of solidarity with the country’s efforts in combating coronavirus, according to the Tourism Ministry. This came in conjunction with the Health Minister Hala Zayed’s travel to China on a visit to discuss precautionary measures to deal with the virus. The visit was announced by the minister during a press conference with the Chinese ambassador in Cairo shortly before Zayed’s departure to Beijing on Sunday. And according to a statement by the ministry, a shipment of medical and preventative supplies was sent to China with the minister. 

Despite the official response, some officials have been critical of the state’s handling of the virus.

Magdy Morshid, a member of Parliament’s Health Committee, criticized the government’s handling of the virus, saying that Egypt’s quarantine measures have assumed coronavirus is limited to China and its neighboring countries rather than an emerging global pandemic.

“We have a very good quarantine in Marsa Matrouh,” Morshid told Mada Masr, noting that screening has focused disproportionately on Asian travelers. The Health Ministry has been lenient with passengers from other countries, he noted, while the rest of the world is testing all visitors.

Egyptian authorities set up quarantine facilities in Nagila Hospital in early February amid criticism from doctors brought in to operate the facility about a lack of clarity and training in the assignment.  

Morshid told Mada Masr that MP Inas Abdel Halim submitted a briefing request to the prime minister to explain the suspension of precautionary quarantine measures at Cairo International Airport to confront coronavirus at the same time that it has become a “global pandemic.”

On February 20, Abdel Halim returned to Egypt from the United States. Neither she nor any of the other passengers were examined. A number of people who arrived at the Cairo airport in the past few days gave similar accounts, according to Morshid, who demanded that Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal summon government officials for a hearing about the state’s plan to deal with coronavirus.  The MP also noted that a lot of scientific research done on positive cases in China proves that COVID-19’s incubation period — when the infection is asymptomatic — could exceed three weeks. This means that a tourist who has contracted coronavirus can enter Egypt for a 10-day holiday and then leave to another country without exhibiting any symptoms.

Against the backdrop of the criticism of the government’s preparedness, other countries have begun restricting travel from Egypt.

As part of a precautionary plan to stem the spread of coronavirus, Kuwait stopped issuing visas to citizens from a number of countries, including Egypt, security sources told Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas on Sunday. Qatar’s civil aviation authority took a similar measure, prohibiting the entry of Egyptian nationals on Sunday, even those who hold Qatari residence.   

There are 56 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kuwait as of Monday, while Qatar’s Public Health Ministry announced on Tuesday a new positive test result, bringing the total to eight.

Kuwait previously announced an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases bringing the total to 12 last Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Qatari health ministry announced its first COVID-19 case yesterday.

As of Sunday, there have been 1,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Italy and 34 deaths. In Iran, the number of deaths reached 54 on Sunday, according to Iranian authorities, who also stated that there were 978 confirmed cases of people who have contracted the virus. On Monday, the United States reported its second death due to the virus. In Israel, three more cases were reported, raising the total number of infected cases to 10. Algeria now has a total of three cases after it reported two new cases yesterday. 

The global death toll from the epidemic surpassed 3,100 on Tuesday. 

The repercussions coronavirus has on Egypt’s economy are already apparent, particularly in the tourism, finance and infrastructure investment sectors. On the tourism front, Emary Abdelazim, a tourism and aviation official at the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, told Mada Masr that Hajj and Umra travel companies are legally obligated to reimburse pilgrims after Saudi Arabia decided to suspend travel to Mecca and Medina due to the coronavirus outbreak.  

Abdelazim explained that there are two groups of pilgrims in the eyes of the travel agency. The first is the group of people who already paid for their reservations with Egyptian travel companies but who had yet to receive visas. They will be able to get their money back easily and directly from the companies. The second group consists of pilgrims who received visas but did not travel. This second group will not be able to get their money back right away because the Egyptian travel companies have already transferred the money to the Saudi authorities. A successful reimbursement will depend on coordination between the Egyptian government and travel companies on the one hand and the Saudi authorities on the other. 

Abdelazim added that, since the decision to suspend Umra trips was announced on Wednesday, the Tourism Ministry and the foreign tourism companies department of the Egyptian Tourism Federation have been working to coordinate between the Egyptian and Saudi authorities to process refunds. According to Abdelazim, some 90,000 were visas issued for the Rajab-Shaaban Umra season. 

On Saturday, the Consumer Protection Agency issued a statement urging travel agents to reimburse all those who paid for the Umra reservations. The statement also added that consumer protection law obliges merchants and service providers to refund customers in case the former could not deliver the purchased service. Failure to comply results in fines ranging from LE30,000 to LE1 million per violation. 

The CPA also warned against fake offers from travel agents, such as those that promise customers that they can still get visas to Saudi Arabia. The statement encouraged customers to pursue refunds for any money previously paid to travel agents. 

At the same time, the Egyptian Travel Agents Association issued a statement on Sunday, in which it said that private aviation companies that transport pilgrims have agreed to cancel fines and fees on canceled flight tickets to Saudi Arabia. The decision will still be applied in the event of a refund or the modification of the flight’s date and destination. 

The German government announced that the ITB Berlin Convention, the biggest trade show in the world, will be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It had been scheduled to take place next week with the participation of 180 countries. The Tourism Ministry was to represent Egypt in the 54th ITB convention in Berlin. 

On the infrastructure investment front, the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy decided to postpone the tender for investments to establish a global center for energy control in the new administrative capital to March 17. The postponement followed a request by China Alliance International Holding Group, which had obtained the tender guidelines to compete for the project that was announced by the ministry in October. 

As for financial markets, the Egyptian Exchange (EGX) has so far failed to recover all of the market losses it incurred on Sunday. Sunday’s session witnessed the largest losses in indices worldwide since the coronavirus outbreak began to affect global and regional stock markets. 


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