Analysis

Coronavirus Cows Egypt's 'White Army' While Sissi Looks the Other Way

Egyptian doctors need protection, equipment, regular testing and suitable training to deal with the virus, but President Sissi argues 'it's not a suitable time' for demands

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A member of a medical team sprays disinfectant as he passes an image of President Sissi, Cairo, March 22, 2020.
A member of a medical team sprays disinfectant as he passes an image of President Sissi, Cairo, March 22, 2020.Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY / REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Walid Yahia Abdel-Halim was a young doctor at the start of his career at the Al Munira Hospital in Egypt. Last week he died of the coronavirus. This brought the total of doctors who have died of the virus to 19, and the number of medical personnel to a few hundred. Egypt's physicians were not comforted by Health Minister Hala Zayed, who thanked them for standing on the front lines of the pandemic, nor by President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who dubbed them Egypt's "white army."

What they want is protection, equipment, regular testing, proper salaries and suitable training to deal with the virus. Yahia did not receive the proper training, and like all beginning government doctors his salary was about $135 a month, including one dollar a month as risk compensation. According to his colleagues, it took a great deal of time from the onset of his symptoms until he was taken to the special hospital for coronavirus patients.

Instead of investigating the reasons behind Yahia's death, the media launched a smear campaign against doctors calling to strike until the Health Ministry met their demands.

In an interview, Alaa Eid, the head of the preventive medicine department in Egypt’s Health Ministry, accused Yahia’s colleagues of neglect. Instead of treating Yahia at the hospital he was working at, Eid said that "They preferred to move him to the national insurance hospital." The interviewer chimed in: "The damage to the medical institutions [by the doctors] comes as part of the war on Egypt." A well-known media figure, Wael El-Abrashi, who is considered to be a government ally, said: “The doctors cannot be allowed to become a political bargaining chip in the hands of a few of them."

Doctors at the Sheikh Zayed hospital in the Egyptian capital Cairo on April 25, 2020.
Doctors at the Sheikh Zayed hospital in the Egyptian capital Cairo on April 25, 2020.Credit: AFP

When representatives of Egypt’s medical society sought to meet with Sissi, he told them, “This is not a suitable time,” adding that, “This is the time to show solidarity with your country to face the crisis.” Sissi's statements sparked a storm on social media with supporters of the regime facing off against the doctors, calling them “traitors who are looking after their own interests.” Supporters of the doctors reminded everyone that Egypt has spent billions of Egyptian pounds on unnecessary projects and neglected investment in health care.

Some of the rage was directed at the Egyptian army, which refused to open its well-equipped hospitals to all citizens. The government did order some 320 civilian private and government hospitals to treat coronavirus patients after only a small number of hospitals were earmarked for this purpose, but it did not provide those hospitals with the necessary funding and equipment to deal with the pandemic. When the Health Ministry was asked why the military hospitals were kept closed to the public, the answer was: “There are enough civilian hospitals to deal with the pandemic.”

The story of Fathi al-Sayid shows that the number of hospitals is not always a guarantee of proper treatment. Sayid’s wife, Muna Mahmoud, told the website Al Araby Al Jadeed that it took 10 days from his coronavirus diagnosis until he was admitted to the coronavirus hospital in Ismailia. At first he was thought to have ordinary flu and he was given pills to bring down his fever. Because his condition worsened, they sent him for a chest x-ray (at a cost of $29) and another diagnosis, which cost $95 (the minimum wage in Egypt is about $150 a month). When he was found to have the coronavirus he was sent to the special hospital, but there, they refused to admit him because they don’t recognize diagnoses made in private facilities. Meanwhile, Sayid’s condition deteriorated to the point where he could hardly breathe, and only then was he hospitalized. The family sought tests for family members who had been in close proximity to Sayid, but the request was denied, and the family was told to remain quarantined at home.

A doctor in the coronavirus isolation ward of the Sheikh Zayed hospital in the Egyptian capital Cairo on April 25, 2020.
A doctor in the coronavirus isolation ward of the Sheikh Zayed hospital in the Egyptian capital Cairo on April 25, 2020.Credit: AFP

In contrast, when a famous actress, 81-year-old Rajaa al-Jadawi, was diagnosed with the coronavirus, she was hospitalized in less than 24 hours. Similarly, members of parliament, officers, governors and senior officials enjoy special treatment that ordinary Egyptians do not. By the way, the Egyptian parliament was up in arms over a photo of the actress in the hospital, with the hospital director standing alongside her without proper protective gear. in The Egyptian legislature, hardly a word is spoken about the lack of such equipment in other hospitals.

Egyptian doctors and coronavirus patients have learned that beyond the difficulty getting tested, diagnosed and hospitalized in a timely manner, there is not standard of treatment. Some hospitals operate according to a protocol written by Cairo University, while other places use different protocols. Some call for a seven-day period of isolation and others require 12 to 14 days. Doctors work for 14 days straight before going home, but they are tested for the coronavirus only two days before the end of their shift, so they might return home while carrying the infection. According to the Egyptian medical association, the Health Ministry has announced that 37 hospitals will be opened with isolation wards, but only 17 hospitals are actually in operation.

It's unlikely that an inquiry committee will be established to investigate the failures of Egypt's medical system. Even if an inquiry is opened, it will certainly find that, under the circumstances, the government did the best it could to help patients. In the end, this is what Egyptians – who know it is better to believe in Allah than the Health Ministry – are used to.