Editor’s note: This is the tenth in POMED’s series of short interviews with civic activists, researchers, and others in our MENA network to spotlight the pandemic’s effects on rights and governance across the region. In this Q&A, we are joined by Ayman Sabae, CEO of Shamseya, a social enterprise based in Cairo that uses innovative technological solutions to help people navigate the healthcare system in Egypt. He is also a health researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and was a 2019 Obama Foundation fellow.
Background: Since last month, Egypt has been undergoing a third wave of COVID-19 infections, with cases reportedly five times higher than this time last year. From the outset of the pandemic, the government has resisted imposing consistent strict precautionary measures in order to protect the economy, but the result has been a failure to control the virus’s spread. Health workers have been particularly hard hit. The Doctors Syndicate has repeatedly voiced concerns over the vulnerability of medical professionals due to lack of adequate equipment and supplies and over the arrest of doctors and nurses who publicly criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic. To date, Egypt has reported 232,905 cases and 13,655 COVID-related deaths, but the true numbers are thought to be much higher.
POMED: What is the COVID-19 situation like on the ground in Egypt?
Ayman Sabae: Things are getting worse, with cases increasing rapidly, especially among young people, and the death toll rising at an alarming rate. Most citizens seem to get their cues from the government, which has not been taking the pandemic seriously.
The official tallies of cases and deaths are not accurate—even the government acknowledges this. The official count includes positive cases only from PCR tests administered in public hospitals, not private hospitals, or cases diagnosed without a test. Death certificates indicate COVID-19 as a cause of death only if the deceased was tested at a public facility. The actual case numbers may be ten times higher.
POMED: What is the situation for healthcare workers?
Ayman Sabae: Largely as a result of the government’s negligence, more than 500 doctors have died from COVID-19, according to the Doctors Syndicate (the Egyptian government reports a much lower number). The government has neglected medical workers’ legitimate demands for safer working conditions while putting forth a narrative that portrays them as soldiers in the “white army” going into battle who should accept death as an inevitable part of their work. But doctors are not benevolent volunteers—they are providing an essential service and should be treated accordingly. The Health Ministry needs to coordinate better with the Doctors Syndicate to compensate, support, and protect medical professionals properly.
POMED: How is the vaccination rollout going?
Ayman Sabae: Unfortunately, not smoothly. First, the supply of vaccines is very limited. Although the government mentions new shipments and deals for local manufacturing, the rollout has been slow. To date, just 0.7 percent of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. At Egypt’s current vaccination rate, it will take 892 more days just to vaccinate 10 percent of the population. Second, vaccination centers risk becoming COVID-19 hotspots. They are overcrowded with older and other at-risk citizens who are waiting between five to ten hours to be vaccinated by medical professionals who are likely carriers of the virus. Finally, while many people are willing to take the vaccine, the Health Ministry is doing little outreach to citizens who lack access to the government’s online registration system.
Mariam Mahmoud works with POMED’s Research Program. Ayman Sabae is the CEO of Shamseya, a social enterprise based in Cairo, and a health researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).