Egypt arrests doctors, silences critics over virus outbreak

By: AP | Cairo |

Published: July 6, 2020 1:55:43 pm

At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt in February, according to rights groups. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

A doctor arrested after writing an article about Egypt’s fragile health system. A pharmacist picked up from work after posting online about a shortage of protective gear. An editor taken from his home after questioning official coronavirus figures.

A pregnant doctor arrested after a colleague used her phone to report a suspected coronavirus case. As Egyptian authorities fight the swelling coronavirus outbreak, security agencies have tried to stifle criticism about the handling of the health crisis by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt in February, according to rights groups. Other health workers say they have been warned by administrators to keep quiet or face punishment.

One foreign correspondent has fled the country, fearing arrest, and another two have been summoned for reprimand over “professional violations.”

Coronavirus infections are surging in the country of 100 million, threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

As of Monday, the Health Ministry had recorded 76,253 infections, including 3,343 deaths — the highest death toll in the Arab world.

“Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family,” said a front-line doctor in greater Cairo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, like all doctors interviewed for this story.

“Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I see no light on the horizon.”

In 2013, el-Sissi, as defense minister, led the military’s removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after his brief rule sparked nationwide protests.

In years since, el-Sissi has stamped out dissent, jailing Islamist political opponents, secular activists, journalists, even belly dancers.

Now the clampdown has extended to doctors who speak publicly about missing protective gear or question the official infection count.

A government press officer did not respond to requests for comment on the arrests of doctors and journalists but did send The Associated Press a document entitled “Realities defeating evil falsehoods,” which details what it says are el-Sissi’s successes in improving the economy and fighting terrorism.

El-Sissi has said the virus’s trajectory was “reassuring” and described critics as “enemies of the state.”

In recent weeks, authorities have marshaled medical supplies to prepare for more patients. The military has set up field hospitals and isolation centers with 4,000 beds and delivered masks to citizens, free of charge, at metro stops, squares and other public places.

The government has scaled up testing within all general hospitals and ordered private companies to churn out face masks and gear for front-line health workers.

El-Sissi has ordered bonuses for medical workers equivalent to $44-$76 a month.

But health personnel are sounding alarm on social media. Doctors say shortages have forced them to purchase surgical masks with their meager salaries. Families plead for intensive care beds.

Dentists and pharmacists complain of being forced to handle suspected virus patients with little training. The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, a non-political group of professionals, into a striking new role as the country’s sole advocate for doctors’ rights.

Last month, the union released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding the release of five doctors detained for expressing their views about the government virus response.

More syndicate members have been arrested than reported, said one board member, but families have kept quiet.

Doctors’ low morale sank further last week, following the arrest of board member and treasurer Mohamed el-Fawal, who demanded on Facebook that the prime minister apologize for comments that appeared to blame health workers for a spike in coronavirus deaths.

In a televised briefing, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly criticized doctors’ “negligence and mismanagement” for endangering citizens’ health.

Incensed doctors hit back, saying they’re untrained, underpaid and under-resourced, struggling to save patients at crowded clinics. So far at least 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from COVID-19, according to syndicate members’ counts, and thousands have fallen ill.

After Madbouly’s comments, the union scheduled a press conference in late June to raise awareness about doctors’ sacrifices and discuss staff and supply shortages.

But before anyone could speak out, security forces surrounded the syndicate and sent members home, according to former leader Mona Mina.

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