AP PHOTOS: Virus threatening Egypt's fragile economy
CAIRO (AP) — It wasn't unexpected, but the ban on visitors to Egypt's famed Pyramids amid the coronavirus pandemic still came as a shock to souvenir vendor Sayed el-Gibri and other tourism workers. As the virus spread, the government stepped up preventive measures, culminating in a ban on all international flights in and out of the country. There was little el-Gibri could do.
“Everything collapsed in a flash,” he said as he stared at the almost empty ancient complex in Giza, just outside of Cairo. The worldwide pandemic could financially drown the vulnerable in Egypt. The partial lockdown threatens the livelihoods of many of Egypt’s 100 million residents, one of three of whom were already living in poverty, according to government figures.
Many Egyptians, particularly those working in tourism, were only recently seeing an improvement in living conditions following the downturn brought about by the country’s 2011 popular uprising. “We were just recovering,” said el-Gibri, a 42-year-old father of four. He said he was earning up to 900 Egyptian pounds (about $57) a week, enough to support his family. But that’s all gone now.
Since mid-March, the government has shuttered schools, mosques, churches and archaeological sites. It also ordered restaurants, coffee shops, malls and gyms to close to encourage people to stay home. A curfew is in place from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has pleaded with citizens to practice social distancing and stay home. But keeping 6 feet (or about 2 meters) away from the next person is tough in crowded cities where most Egyptians live, and where many are daily wage earners.
In Cairo, a city of more than 20 million, passengers often sit or stand close to each other in trains and buses, most not wearing face masks or gloves. El-Sissi has said he won't implement a full lockdown for fear of further damage to the economy.
Egypt has had more than 2,300 coronavirus cases, including dozens of foreigners, and 178 deaths so far. Among the fatalities are several tourists and two senior military officers. It’s estimated the true figures could be much higher due to the lack of widespread testing.
In Cairo, life goes on during the daylight hours. Traffic continues to flow. Party boats on the Nile River blare music, even though they don't carry passengers. Many markets in the city’s poorer neighborhoods still bustle.
At night, though, shops are shuttered and the city quiets down. Egypt has allocated 100 billion pounds (over $63.5 million) to overcoming the virus and its effects. The Central Bank ordered the largest interest rate cut in its history and the government has begun paying informal workers 500 Egyptian pounds (around $32) per month in unemployment benefits for three months.
But for some the damage is already done. Abdel Karim Sayed, a Cairo coffee shop owner, shuttered his business and furloughed employees. He says he knows other business owners who are doing the same. “We are all financially ruined,” he said.