Virus turns health workers in Egypt into 'outcasts'
After showing symptoms similar to those of the coronavirus, Egyptian doctor Ahmed Negm went into self-isolation in an old apartment, but before long he was hounded out by fearful neighbours.
While health workers in many countries are getting cheers and applause for risking their lives in the gruelling battle against the disease, in some parts of the world they face suspicion and hostility. Though they are regularly hailed by the North African nation's government and media as Egypt's "white (coated) army", many health personnel have complained of being shunned and mistreated by others in society.
Negm had already tested negative for the virus but, mindful of the fact that he had frequently dealt with suspected cases, decided to go into confinement as a precaution. As the 31-year-old sealed himself off from the outside world, rumours swirled around his neighbourhood in the northeastern province of Ismailia that he was infected and avoiding treatment. He was even reported to the police.
Despite explaining his situation to them, the doctor faced continued harassment, snide remarks and pleas from some of his neighbours to leave the area because "there were many children and elderly."
Eventually, Negm moved out. "People are gripped by panic but they're taking it too far to a point where it feels like a stigma," he told AFP. "It's as if we have become outcasts."
Egypt's health workers, like those elsewhere, have been stretched thin by the virus, grappling with long hours, soaring caseloads and a high risk of catching the disease themselves. Medical staff in several hospitals in Cairo and other provinces have been infected. Four doctors have died out of 43 who fell ill, according to the country's doctors union. Health workers account for some 13 percent of Egypt's total confirmed COVID-19 cases, which have risen above 3,000 including more than 200 fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.
Even after death, one doctor who had caught the virus was targeted by fearful villagers who protested against her burial in Daqahliya province in the Nile Delta. Authorities dispersed the hours-long demonstration and arrested 23 people as part of an investigation into what the public prosecutor described as "an act of terror".
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli deplored the "disgraceful" act and urged healthcare workers to "pay no heed". A nurse in the same province who had tested positive for the virus said she and other infected healthcare workers were contacted by strangers after their names and contact details were widely shared on social media.
"Many called to support and pray for us … but others accused us of spreading the virus and of being the source of infection," she said, wearing a mask, her voice quivering in a video posted online. "We're exhausted. Have mercy on us. Our spirits have been destroyed."
Dina Abdelsalam, a doctor in Ismailia province, said her neighbours publicly smeared her because she works at a hospital which receives suspected coronavirus cases. After recently moving to a new apartment to keep away from her family as a precaution, she said she was startled by her neighbours shouting in the street, accusing her of "bringing the disease" to the area.
The police intervened and her neighbours eventually apologised. But for Abdelsalam their apology was "worthless" after they treated her like a "suspected (criminal)". "We (medics) are suffering," she said in an online video, "and you are making it worse."
Other doctors from Cairo, the northern city of Alexandria and elsewhere have complained on Facebook of being refused taxi rides or food delivery due to fears of contagion. Such treatment of healthcare workers "can make an already challenging situation far more difficult," the WHO representative in Egypt, Jean Jabbour, told AFP. "Targeting essential providers ... will weaken our fight against COVID-19 and can prove grievously detrimental for the entire nation."
And as complaints surged, local media reported that lawmakers are mulling criminalising the "bullying" of medical workers. At the same time many Egyptians appeared in recent online videos to be ignoring rules on social distancing aimed at reducing the risk of contagion in the country of 100 million people. "They are taking it out on us instead of abandoning habits that will more likely expose them to the disease," said pharmacist Heba al-Feky, who was recently forced out of a taxi for being a health worker.