Amid its inaccurate COVID-19 infections, Egypt jails doctors and represses critics

While almost all world countries are honoring doctors and celebrating medical professions, Egypt is jailing its doctors, amid hiking numbers of coronavirus infections.

The Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program for the Eastern Mediterranean, Rick Brennan, has declared that the number of coronavirus cases recorded by Egypt’s Health Ministry does not reflect the actual figures for infections in the country.

During a press briefing a few days ago, Brennan said that there has been an increase in the number of cases in Egypt, and the WHO is closely examining the reports with health officials to help guide the country.

He added that the official number of infections is just an estimate, and therefore, in these contexts the WHO sees that these numbers do not reflect the real number of infections.

In order to gain a more accurate and comprehensive picture, the WHO is looking at other indicators, including the number of deaths per day and hospital occupancy.

Early June 2020, Egypt’s higher education and scientific research minister said the country’s coronavirus infection numbers fall short of accuracy.

The country’s real tally of infections is five times higher than data announced by the country’s Health Ministry, while the actual number of deaths is 10 times higher than official figures, local media quoted Khalid Atef Abdul Ghaffar as saying.

Egypt’s doctors under regime’s repression

It is shocking that Egypt’s doctors are exposed to administrative detention during Covid-19 outbreak for criticizing government. Due to severity of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s negligence, the virus is not only taking its toll on civilians but medical staff; especially those who dare to ask for help. 

Egyptian authorities have arrested at least nine doctors and other medical personnel who are speaking out about the deaths of frontline healthcare workers as the country wrestles with a surge in coronavirus cases and tries to reopen its struggling economy.

Since last March, Egyptian security forces have detained the healthcare professionals for complaining about a lack of protective gear in hospitals; criticizing the government’s response to the virus; or reporting coronavirus cases without authorization, according to the country’s medical union and rights groups.

Egypt faces a growing crisis in its hospitals as underequipped medics grapple with an influx in coronavirus patients. At least 103 doctors have died from the coronavirus since the outbreak began and more than 3,000 have been infected, according to officials at the Egyptian Medical Syndicate.

The death toll among medics has resulted in a rare public confrontation between the country’s medical community and the Egyptian government over how the state is handling the virus. The union has accused the government of negligence by failing to provide protective gear and test and isolate hospital workers who have been exposed to the virus.

“Anger is growing among doctors and the Ministry of Health is required to protect them,” said Mona Mina, a member of the Medical Syndicate board, in a public Facebook post in May. “You can’t put soldiers on the battlefield without weapons.”

The government has said it is working to provide more protective gear and also opened a 4,000-bed field hospital in a Cairo convention center on June 27.

Egypt joins a growing list of countries that have detained doctors for speaking out about their government’s handling of the coronavirus, starting with China when it detained a doctor from Wuhan city who tried to warn others about the initial spread of the virus. Pakistan and Russia have also detained doctors who have been critical of their government’s response to the disease.

Earlier this year Egypt’s government rejected calls from the Medical Syndicate to impose a total lockdown to stop the virus’s spread, arguing the country couldn’t afford the economic costs of a shutdown. The government instead adopted partial measures like a nighttime curfew, a halt to international flights, and the closure of schools and other gathering places.

The doctors’ criticism of the government is unusual in Egypt because the state allows little space for expressions of public dissent. Egyptian authorities heavily censor the media, outlaws most protests, and have jailed thousands of people in a crackdown on political opponents in recent years.

“We thought the pandemic would be a time to recognize the work of doctors, but four months into it all I’m left with is fear, depression and silence,” said a pediatrician, aged 40, working in a hospital designated for coronavirus patients in Egypt’s Minufiya province.

The sparring between the government and the doctors reached a crisis point on June 23 when Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that doctor absenteeism contributed to a recent surge in coronavirus deaths.

When doctors decried the statement in posts on social media, the Egyptian security forces clamped down. Security officers arrested Mohamed Al-Fawal, a member of the board of the Medical Syndicate who pushed back on the prime minister’s statement online, during a raid on his home on June 25, according to syndicate officials. On June 27, security officers shut down a news conference organized by the syndicate in Cairo.

Prosecutors have charged the detained doctors and nurses with a range of charges including “spreading false news” and membership in a terrorist group, accusations the medics reject. The same charges are frequently leveled against activists and others detained in the ongoing government crackdown.

“The authorities are saying you have to sacrifice but you have to shut up about it,” said Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher with Amnesty International who has researched recent arrests of medics in the country. “You have to take all the abuse.”

Outside the Imbaba hospital, as the emergency room’s sound system plays a song praising doctors for their role in countering the COVID-19 pandemic, *Dina, 28, a respiratory doctor, goes to her parked car to get a new set of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) that she bought from the black market after her six-hour shift.

Dina, as well as other colleagues, has threatened to go on strike. They are demanding that their salaries and hospital facilities improve along with access to enough PPE.  Just a day after they created a WhatsApp group, Dina was threatened by state-society agents, while a colleague of hers was detained for 16 hours before getting released.

The death toll among Egyptian medical doctors who caught COVID-19 is currently at 216 (as per the latest official count). While around nine doctors are currently in prison after voicing concerns about the lack of PPE and PCR tests. All of them are facing terrorism-related charges and are banned from having legal representation, according to Amnesty International.

“Not only do we have to bite the bullet and buy PPE at our own expense, but we also have to show up at work no matter what. Otherwise, we get threatened with arrest,” Dina says.

Despite the major media nationalist campaign that praises doctors and nurses for their work in battling the coronavirus in a country of over 100 million, Dina and thousands of her colleagues are facing a doubly dangerous situation.

They risk being infected with the virus while working or face arrests and intimidation should they criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The country’s doctors have joined the ranksof those targeted by the government’s crackdowns, including political opponents, secular activists, journalists and human rights workers.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Egyptian state has favored its PR and public image over facing the actual number of infections and addressing the lack of PPE, as well as the possibility of being overrun by increasing cases of COVID.

Pro-military media outlets and political parties such as the Future’s Nation have produced numerous video clips and dedicated pages praising the role of medical staff in countering the virus, referring to them as“Egypt’s white army”.

The videos and songs showcase footage of well-dressed doctors in PPE and military special forces, are widely shared and performed by several popular singers, to show how the state is behind its doctors in this battle against the virus.

However, the reality on the ground is different.

At the Ain Shams University Hospital, all the medical workers in the chest department were infected, and a whole replacement crew was transferred to fill in. Mohamed Samy, a junior respiratory doctor, was one of the infected crew.

He says his staff have been appealing for months to the government to get additional PPE and to ensure that his colleagues get access to PCR tests should COVID-19 symptoms develop.

“A colleague of ours had severe symptoms but was ordered by the head of the hospital to come into work. After days of negotiations, he took a PCR test. We discovered that he was infected, but only after he had spread the virus to workers everywhere,” says Samy.

Commenting on this incident, Egypt’s Presidential Adviser for Health Affairs Mohamed Awad Tageldin said the fact that the doctors were all infected was the “price they pay for their work in public hospitals.” He added that all the infected doctors were hospitalized but recovering

In addition to getting few or almost no PPE, several doctors have complained that they have to wait in line and pay thousands of pounds in order to be tested or get treatment.

Samy and his colleagues saythey paid for the costs of their treatment out of pocket in private hospitals. “We did not receive one pound from the government,” he adds.

Speaking anonymously from the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, one official says it is creating funds and partnerships with private hospitals and laboratories to offer medical assistants to doctors. “We do not get any assistance from the state, although the government should be keen to protect doctors as they are the first line of defense against this virus,” the official from the syndicate tells The Africa Report.

“We are Egypt’s White Army on TV. But on the ground we are low paid conscripts who are left to fight this battle alone,” the source said. The Egyptian Medical Syndicate has been spearheading calls to demand that the government provide proper PPE and financial aid to doctors.

In response to those calls, leading pro-government outlets are accusing all doctors of being members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

In the upper Egyptian city of Assiut, considered to be the poorest in the country by official statistics, Micheal, a cardiologist at the Assiut General hospital, says how after contracting the virus, he had to borrow money from his family to get the proper treatment, as he earns LE3500 ($223) per month.

“At first the hospital refused to test me, so I had to pay  for one out of pocket at LE1400,” adding that he even had to send a copy of the test to his supervisor to get sick leave or face being penalized.

“I was literally having problems breathing. Yet, I had to send ‘proof’ that I was sick otherwise I could lose one-third of my salary” he says.

Doctors earn less than officers and judges, two of Egypt’s top esteemed professions, adds Micheal. But he hopes one day to receive some of the same benefits.

“I hope I got the same treatment as Mohamed Salah or Naguib Sawiris when they got infected. I do not have their money, but me and my staff save lives every day.”

As the situation continues to become unbearable for many doctors, some medical workers have taken to social media; the only outlet where Egyptians can voice their anger and criticise the government’s response to the pandemic.

However, such criticism was met by arrests, intimidation, and the threat of military tribunals.

*Nabil, 57, a general practitioner in Suez, who works from his private clinic, says state security agents paid him a threatening visit at his house.They warned him to not post anything more about the pandemic on his social media pages or else face consequences.

He says his posts were jokes about how the Ministry of Health is dealing with the crisis. “They told me straight away that they can detain me for years and end my career if I don’t stop,” says Nabil.

To add to that, they threatened him with a trial in a military court despite the fact that he’s a civilian. To that, the officers added that “the country is in a state of emergency.” The use of military courts usually entail harsher sentences, whereby civilians lack little to any legal representation and are often imprisoned in unknown locations.

“We are under the mercy of the regime and their propaganda machine,” says *Said, an Egyptian doctor who was arrested in March and released after months in detention. “If one day they order people to praise us, they do. If they order people to consider us as terrorists and corrupt people, they do that as well.”

During his incarceration, he says he was subjected to harsh treatment and was questioned about his relation to the Muslim Brotherhood. The official charge Said faced was “joining a terrorist group and spreading false information.”

In the same cell, Said spent months with convicted criminals and Islamist militants. “While the whole world is honoring doctors and celebrating science and the profession of medicine, Egypt is jailing doctors.”

His ‘crime’ came in the form a social media post in which he criticized the government for sending PPE to the UK while he and his colleagues were forced to share their equipment or buy them from the black market.

Despite several reports citing the lack of PPE among medical staff, the Egyptian government has prided itself in being able to ship that very PPE to the US, the UK, Italy, and Sudan.

Maysa Atwa, a member of the parliament’s manpower committee refers to the state of emergency and the “conspiracies targeting Egypt” to justify these arrests.

“All the arrests made are done by following the rule of law and all interrogations are done by the Egyptian prosecution,” she says.

However, according to the source from the medical syndicate, his colleagues have been barred from accessing any legal representation from the syndicate as their chargeis not related to their medical practice.

As the Egyptian state continues to ignore calls by the Egyptian Medical Syndicate to impose a lockdown and improve its treatment protocol, the numbers of infections are on the rise as more people abandon social distancing rules.

Although in many statements Egyptian officials  have acknowledged that the actual numbers could be up to ten times higher.

Despite the surge and global warnings of a second wave,the country continues to hold music and film festivals and ceremonies and has lifted the previously imposed partial curfew.

Additionally, the majority of the population considered poor continue their daily errands in crowded banks, markets, and schools making them even more susceptible to infection amid a lack of proper public medical care.

Mona Mina, the former Secretary-General of the medical syndicate wrote on her Facebook account :  “The number of infections and deaths around us is scary. Shouldn’t the government ban gatherings and weddings and similar events? Enough festivals and matches.

Despite the fact that Dr. Mona Mina is Christian, she has been accused by pro-state media of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Every country in the world has infections, but the state insists on hiding the truth so it can leave the economy open to investments and business,” says Dina.

As she prepares for the rest of her shift and straps on her PPE before entering the hospital, she adds: “The peak of the crisis has yet to come. But when it arrives, most doctors in this country will be sick, dead, in prison, or will choose not to show up to work.”