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Analysis – Coronavirus under control? Egypt’s latest giant problem awaits

It’s dangerous being an Asian in Egypt these days. A Chinese student at Al-Azhar University, who has been living in Cairo for five years, told the Daraj website that he was always treated well and received warmly wherever he went. “But now everybody’s afraid of me,” he said. “Nobody wants any contact with me, whether for eating or studying.”

He’s not alone. Online videos show how someone who appeared Asian was thrown off a bus by the passengers, and at a popular food stand in Cairo, customers ran away when a person who appeared Asian showed up.

If Egyptians want a guide for combating the novel coronavirus, it can be found not on the Egyptian Health Ministry’s website but on social media; sites are suggesting, for example, that you eat salty smoked fish, the kind usually enjoyed on holidays.

Another piece of advice is to purify yourself before prayers; go heavy on the nostrils, because the purifying water removes the virus. Others warn against having sex because it can transmit the virus, or to beware of pets. And especially: “Don’t take an aspirin if you’re already infected, because it’s known that aspirin kills corona patients.”

Doctors are also posting videos, but the prices for the treatment they’re offering are exorbitant. Pharmacy owners have also inflated the price of basic flu medication and face masks; the prices of the latter are up tenfold.

The authorities continue to insist that everything is under control and that the health services are prepared to receive infected patients in specially isolated wards. Egypt hasn’t yet closed its borders, and schools and universities are fully operational.

But the dozens of cases of infection (it’s hard to obtain accurate figures) in a country with a population of 100 million, a few days after the Health Ministry declared that Egypt is free of the virus, have stoked the flames. It seems Egypt will have to join other countries in the region and close its gates.

The economic damage started once Saudi Arabia prevented the entry of foreign visitors hoping to go to Mecca and Medina. Egyptian travel agencies issued 4,000 entry visas for pilgrims to Mecca just before the Saudis’ decision, but most of these pilgrims will now be left in the lurch.

Each year, 200,000 Egyptian pilgrims make their way to Saudi Arabia, and registration for entry visas usually begins around now. The Haj takes place in July this year, and this time around, registration is low; people seeking visas are loath to make a deposit lest they not be able to travel.

Incoming tourism, an important source of revenue ($12.5 billion last year), is taking a big hit. According to hoteliers and tour guides, the number of visits has plunged to 10 percent of its normal level and may shrink further after 55 tourists contracted the coronavirus while on a tour boat on the Nile, with one German tourist dying.