As more virus cases trace their origins to Egypt, questions rise over government measures

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CAIRO — For days now, the Egyptian government has stated that a Taiwanese American woman was the source of the coronavirus infections of 45 passengers and crew members aboard a Nile cruise ship, suggesting that Egypt was a victim of the global spread of the epidemic.

On Sunday, Taiwan disputed that assertion. After isolating the strain of the virus from the woman, known as Case #39, Taiwanese researchers concluded that it was different from those of other infected Taiwanese, the island’s Centers for Disease Control said in a statement. In other words, she was not the origin of the infection on that ship.

“It is determined that Case #39 contracted the novel coronavirus in Egypt, and developed symptoms after returning to Taiwan and that this is an imported case,” the statement read.

Egyptian officials said they based their conclusion about the woman on discussions with World Health Organization officials. Nevertheless, the dispute underscores questions about the spread of the virus in Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous nation, with more than 100 million people — and the way the government is handling the threat.

As the virus travels worldwide, Egyptians have expressed concern about a lack of transparency from the government and wonder whether it is concealing the true extent of the virus’s spread in the nation. Unlike many other countries in the region, and across the world, Egypt has not closed schools, paused Friday prayers or suspended sporting events to limit the transmission of the virus. It was only on Monday night that the government decided to ban large public gatherings.

The fears have heightened since Friday, when the number of coronavirus infections jumped from three to 55, including those Nile cruise cases. Dozens of foreigners, including more than two dozen Americans, remain quarantined aboard the ship in the southern city of Luxor. A German tourist who traveled from Luxor to the Red Sea town of Hurghada died Sunday from complications brought on by the virus, becoming Egypt’s first coronavirus fatality.

As many as 28 people from Canada, France, Greece and the United States have contracted the virus after visiting Egypt in recent weeks.

Egyptian officials say they have been transparent, noting that the government has created a website to inform the public of its efforts and has tested more than 2,000 people who have come in contact with infected people.

But only over the weekend did the government increase its efforts — after the Nile cruise infections emerged.

On Monday, the first measures were taken in one city: Tourism officials announced that all hot-air balloon rides in Luxor would be halted, in an apparent effort to prevent people from being squeezed together.

They also said that they would improve sanitation at all hotels in Luxor and on cruise ships, as well as test passengers and crew members before they depart their ships. Authorities have canceled the Luxor African Cinema Festival.

Yet all the famous sites in the city — including the Valley of the Kings, as well as the Luxor and Karnak temples — remain open, even though they are normally crowded with thousands of tourists, according to visitors there.

“The feedback I get from my patients shows that there is a state of fear and skepticism among the public when it comes to fully trusting official statements regarding the coronavirus in Egypt,” said Mohamed Ashraf, 33, an orthopedic specialist. “Some of the patients I have seen suspect that the cases are much more than those the government has announced.”

The government can largely blame itself for the public’s skepticism. Under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, information is closely controlled and truth is manipulated, even sacrificed, if it damages the country’s image or all-important economic engine.

When a bomb brought down a Russian passenger plane departing the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik in 2015, killing all 224 people aboard, the government initially denied that terrorists were responsible, even as Western intelligence agencies corroborated the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility.

The following year, Egypt blamed a bomb when an EgyptAir plane traveling from Paris crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 66 people aboard, and obstructed the official probe. But French investigators determined that technical failures brought down the plane.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, other countries in the region have grown worried about Egypt because of its dependence on tourism. Millions of Egyptians work in neighboring nations and in the Persian Gulf region, traveling back and forth. In recent days, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia have placed restrictions on visitors from Egypt. Saudi Arabia requires that Egyptian workers entering the kingdom have a certificate from Egypt showing they had tested negative for the coronavirus.

Under pressure, the Egyptian government on Monday night announced the cancellation of all large public events, including opera performances, as well as restrictions on the movement of large groups of people between provinces.

For ordinary Egyptians, such measures, while welcome, have come late.

“I did not see any awareness campaigns on TV on how people should deal with the virus,” said Amani Moussa, 28, a painter. “I was buying something from the market yesterday, and the seller was using his teeth to actually hold the bag in which he collected my vegetables. So people are not careful.”

Ashraf, the orthopedic specialist, said that “most people are truly upset that the schools have not been suspended yet, because they see other countries have done so.”

But what he is most concerned about are the crumbling government facilities. The vast majority of them, he said, “lack good ventilation systems, and these places could turn into a ticking bomb if the virus spreads.”