In May, North Sinai became the last governorate in Egypt to officially record positive coronavirus cases, and last week, the North Sinai health department announced that the number of cases had increased to 10. The way the news spread of the initial cases in the cities of Arish and Bir al-Abd caused confusion and concern among residents.
The first official announcement of a coronavirus outbreak in the governorate came on May 5 in Bir al-Abd in a Facebook post by an account run by the city’s health department. It declared a positive case had been detected without providing any additional information. The city council’s official page then published the person’s initials and age and said the case had been transferred to the Abou Khalifa quarantine hospital in Ismailia.
In the last few days of Ramadan, on May 23, the first confirmed COVID-19 case was recorded in the governorate’s capital of Arish. A medical source inside the health department later confirmed that a positive case had been admitted in Arish General Hospital.
A source inside North Sinai’s health department told Mada Masr that the Arish case arrived in the city from Cairo on May 10. Symptoms started showing six days after their arrival and the patient was admitted to hospital seven days later. According to the source, the patient has five children with whom they came into direct contact. Four of them live in Airsh and were tested and admitted to hospital even though they showed no symptoms. The fifth child lives in Cairo and the relevant authorities were contacted to take the necessary medical steps with regard to him.
The health department prohibits the sharing of any patient information. Yet, before confirming that the first case in Arish had tested positive, residents shared the patient’s name and place of residence. The patient’s son, who lives in Cairo, posted videos on social media claiming that his mother had not contracted the coronavirus and recounting his journey to Arish in a rented car with two other passengers. He has since been tested and is now under quarantine with his mother.
News that one suspected COVID-19 case had spent several hours in a car with two other passengers on his way to Arish raised concern among the city’s residents. This concern only grew when a new case was announced in the city with even more worrying details.
On May 29, the health department posted a brief statement announcing new cases. But in the days leading up to that announcement, unofficial accounts on social media spread news about a new positive case in Arish that had been admitted to the hospital and a local news page published the patient’s photo and full name.
A source inside North Sinai’s health department told Mada Masr that the patient had been admitted to Arish General Hospital on May 25 and tested positive for COVID-19 two days later. Eight family members who came into direct contact with the case were examined, according to the source. Seven of them showed no symptoms, though the elderly mother did and is now under quarantine in the Arish hospital awaiting test results.
According to the source, the patient who tested positive visited a medical clinic, an x-ray center and a test center in Arish between May 17 and May 25, the day she was quarantined. People she came into contact with during this period were examined. One of them, a technician at the test center she frequented, showed symptoms. He was asked to self-isolate at home.
The source said the new case is not related to the first case who had come to Arish from Cairo, suggesting that the virus may have spread through an asymptomatic carrier. The new case had not left North Sinai for six months, the source said, indicating that there are still undetected cases in the city.
Over the past few weeks, local news outlets have continued to post stories about suspected cases admitted to Arish General Hospital. The health department intermittently released statements announcing only the number of positive cases. Meanwhile, the official page of the governorate’s administrative office, which is the number one source of news in North Sinai, had not posted anything related to the coronavirus since it was first detected in the governorate.
An official medical source inside North Sinai’s health department told Mada Masr that the coronavirus situation in Arish is considered stable thus far and called on residents to take preventative measures at all times and to not be negligent. The source also said the city of Bir al-Abd is currently the epicenter of the coronavirus on the governorate with five confirmed cases: two in downtown and three others spread over the villages of Baluza, Kharba and Najila.
Other causes for concern
Aside from the recently announced increase in coronavirus cases, Arish residents also worried about undetected cases moving around the city, especially during the last few days of Ramadan, when the city’s markets were crowded with people shopping for Eid. This was before any cases were officially announced and virtually no one was taking preventative measures, such as wearing masks or gloves.
Crowds also routinely gather at the few working ATMs in the governorate when employees need to cash in their salaries. The overcrowding is a recurring problem that has yet to be resolved despite repeated calls by residents for more machines. After the first coronavirus cases were officially detected, Red Crescent volunteers took over organizing access to the ATMs to try and reduce crowding. Banque Misr added a tent at its downtown branch and laid out chairs for waiting clients. Meanwhile, police officers also began monitoring the cash withdrawals for the first time and threatening residents against photographing the crowds.
When the first official case was detected in Arish on May 23, it caused the city to lockdown over Eid, with parks, public gardens and beaches all closing. People also reduced their social gatherings at family homes and elsewhere. Security forces also enforced a strict curfew with armored police vehicles patrolling the streets and forcing shops to close. Checkpoints were set up and residents who violated curfew were arrested. Residents were banned from the city’s main beach promenade with some seventy volunteers affiliated with the Department of Youth and Sports taking part in patrols.
Aside from the security measures, people began to take social distancing measures after Eid. There are fewer residents on the streets now and most people wear a mask and gloves. In fact, pharmacies became points of convergence as people searched for masks, disinfectants and gloves. The masks in particular are in short supply. The manager of a major pharmacy in downtown Arish told Mada Masr that medical supply companies have raised prices. A pack of masks can sell for as much as LE200 with limited availability and pre-orders. Some pharmacies refused to buy them.
After the weeklong Eid vacation ended, many people began returning to Arish from their home governorates where they visited family. In response, North Sinai authorities announced they had set up a medical checkpoint near a square west of Arish that is considered the city’s main entry point. Anyone entering the city from the western side would undergo an examination. The governorate also added three disinfectant booths to its administrative office for employees and citizens who enter the building.
The Arish city council also released a statement calling on employees who had spent Eid vacation outside the governorate to be tested, submit the results, and self-isolate as soon as they reach Arish before entering the council’s headquarters or any of its departments. Arish University took the same measures.
Recently however, many residents have begun to relax their precautionary measures, even as the official number of cases constitutes to rise throughout the country, as erroneous news spread on local pages that Arish had returned to zero positive cases.
Arish city squares renovated but remain closed
Nearly eight months after beginning the process of developing Arish’s main squares, the results are starting to show in a number of downtown areas and squares, including Bank of Cairo, Saa, Rafei, Mina and Nasr. Many now feature water fountains and colored lighting yet residents have yet to benefit from the renovations as the squares remain closed.
North Sinai launched the process of developing the squares with funds of up to LE35 million in phase one with an additional LE380 million coming from the Ministry of Housing. Saa is one of the most notable squares that has undergone renovation — connecting downtown to the shore — yet it has remained shut for more than six years because the military prosecution’s office is located there. The office was recently evacuated and moved to Battalion 101’s headquarters in the suburb of Salam. Nevertheless, the square remains shut as it features a new branch of the National Bank of Egypt where police forces are stationed for security.
In the beginning of May, city council officials tried to work with the police and military to find a solution to open the square without compromising the bank’s security, according to a local source living in the area. However, security officials ultimately refused all suggestions to open the roads in the square. Meanwhile, North Sinai Governor, Major General Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha, has announced that the squares would not be reopened until Egypt is free of the coronavirus.
Mobile network returns to Sheikh Zuwayed only to fail again
The people of Sheikh Zuwayed have waited in anticipation for the return of a functioning mobile network in the city after nearly eight years without service. Etisalat did begin operating in the city on April 24, following efforts by the city’s MP Ibrahim Abou Shoaira to bring in maintenance crews. The celebration was short-lived however as the network failed an hour after it began operating and has yet to return. Shoaira posted on his personal Facebook page that the electrical devices that operate the tower had experienced a technical malfunction and was coordinating to have them fixed.
Closure of main road put residents at risk
One of the main grievances in North Sinai has been the recent closure of the Arish-Hosna international road, which connects to central Sinai. Security checkpoints on the road ordered residents to take another route at the village of Tawil in eastern Arish to Naqe al-Shihy, then Gemeiy all the way to the outskirts of the village of Lahfan, the last Arish village adjacent to central Sinai. This is an unpaved, unsecure road that runs to the southeast of Sheikh Zuwayed.
When residents asked about the reasons behind this measure, security personnel at the checkpoints told them that the road has been closed indefinitely for security reasons. The road and the surrounding area are located in the vicinity of the highly secured Arish Airport grounds where work on a protective concrete wall was recently concluded. Yet the alternate route passes through one of the most dangerous areas in North Sinai, where the Province of Sinai — the Islamic State affiliate — is situated.
Meanwhile, the abduction and killing of civilians has been on the rise in North Sinai in recent weeks, particularly in Sheikh Zuwayed. In response, Central Sinai MP Gazi Saad called on the military to protect residents, posting on his personal page: “The people of central Sinai will not continue to be scapegoats for takfiris [Province of Sinai] as the new road endangers lives. Either the military secures the new road, or we return to the old one.”