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SOHAG, Egypt – Countries around the world struggling with new coronavirus surges are trying to make sure they are not hit by an Indian-style disaster. They face many of the same risks, including large populations who have evaded restraint and fragile health systems that have been rocked under the strain.
In a province on the Nile in southern Egypt, hospitals have been flooded with COVID-19 patients, a major focus of a third swelling across the country. Doctors in Sohag province warn that the health system there could collapse even if the government buys new supplies.
“I guess there isn’t a family in Sohag that doesn’t have a corona case,” said Dr. Mahmoud Fahmy Mansour, Head of the Provincial Medical Association. “We lost five doctors in a week.”
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He said a scenario like India is a possibility, but “God willing, it’s a very distant possibility.”
The Egyptian government has long hesitated to impose new lockdowns and on Wednesday announced its toughest restrictions in months. It ordered cafes, restaurants, shops, and malls to close at 9 p.m., banned large gatherings for two weeks, and closed beaches and parks during the upcoming Eid el-Fitr holidays at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Egypt is not alone when it comes to getting new infections. Globally, more cases have been reported in the past two weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic, said World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom.
India and Brazil made up a large part of it, “but there are many other countries around the world that are facing a very fragile situation,” he said. “What is happening in India and Brazil could happen elsewhere if we don’t all take these public health precautions.”
India has been hit by a catastrophic spike in COVID-19 infections after its prime minister boasted of beating the pandemic and pursuing several massive bottlenecks. New cases and deaths rose nearly 30 times in March and April. The health system is overwhelmed and patients are desperate for oxygen and other supplies.
Wealthier nations find room to open up as they immunize more of their populations. But countries where vaccination was slow or minimal. They have to grapple with the question of whether to block themselves out to thwart new waves and damage their economies – all with the possibility of Indian-style tragedy.
In Turkey, the number of new cases increased almost sixfold from the beginning of March and reached a high of more than 60,000 per day. The government imposed a three-week national lockdown on April 29, but liberated many sectors, allowing millions to continue to work.
The numbers have fallen, but medical experts are calling for a 28-day full shutdown of all non-essential services while only about 10 million of the more than 80 million people have been fully vaccinated.
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“These restrictions were not the restrictions we asked for,” said Vedat Bulut, general secretary of the independent Turkish medical association.
In Egypt, the average daily new cases have doubled to just over 1,000 per day since early February and are still rising, compared to previous highs of 1,400 to 1,600 per day last summer and in December, according to official figures.
The extent of the pandemic has been difficult to gauge in the country of 100 million people, most of whom live in crowded cities on the Nile. Official numbers report 234,015 cases, including 13,714 deaths – a significant undercount like anywhere else in the world.
Health workers in Sohag Province have become desperate. A doctor who runs a major hospital there said the actual numbers are likely ten times the health department’s rate of 400-450 new cases per week.
“The Ministry is like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” he said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Mustafa Salem, a Sohag lawmaker, said he has received dozens of calls from people desperately looking for ventilators or intensive care beds.
When Ismail Abdallah fell ill last month, his family took him to a clinic where he was told without a test that it was pneumonia.
Two days later, the 50-year-old farmer and father of seven children had difficulty breathing. In the hospital, he was confirmed with COVID-19 and his family was looking for a bed in overcrowded intensive care units.
“There were no available beds in the vacant ward,” said a relative, Amr Mahrous. “We tried to find a bed on the paid ward.”
After two weeks in isolation in a hospital, Abdullah died last week.
The Ministry of Health has improved facilities in the province, sent oxygen generators and ventilators, and increased the number of intensive care units. More doctors were deployed and medical teams doubled to follow up those isolated at home. Two vaccination centers have been set up and more are planned, and 100 teams have been mobilized to raise awareness.
The Ministry of Health listed Sohag under five hot spots in the country – including Cairo, a metropolis with around 20 million inhabitants.
Health officials attribute the new surge to widespread ignoring of precautionary measures. All over Egypt, wearing masks and social distancing are rare. Some cafes still serve hookahs shared by customers despite government bans. Weddings and funerals are still going on, and people are thronging to marketplaces.
In Islamic Cairo, the historical center of the capital, families go to prayers together during the holy month of Ramadan. Tens of thousands gather in the narrow streets of the bazaar at night, shopping or sitting in cafes. Few wear face masks.
Hajah Fatima, 57, came with her family from the southern province of Beni Sueif and had “iftar”, the food that quickly ended the day, in a café next to the venerated Al-Hussein shrine.
“It’s a custom,” she said. “Corona? Nothing will happen to us except what God has ordered.”
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So far, more than 1 million people, or just 1% of the Egyptian population, have been vaccinated, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said on Wednesday.
Cases have risen rapidly in the overcrowded Palestinian enclave of Gaza, home to 2 million people. In March and April, infection rates exceeded 1,000 a day – the number Gaza had previously recorded on a weekly basis. Daily deaths have doubled to a high of 20. The virus has killed more than 900 Gazans and made over 102,000 sick, more than half of them this year.
“Hospitals are struggling to cope with this,” the international aid group Doctors Without Borders warned this week.
The territory’s Hamas rulers closed mosques and restaurants and imposed a night curfew at the beginning of Ramadan to slow the outbreak. But it decided to lift these restrictions for the last 10 days of the holy month, which alarmed health officials.
“We are concerned about the widespread relaxation of measures,” said Rami Abadllah, head of epidemiology at the Ministry of Health.
Amid concerns over India, Kenya, which had declined from a recent peak, halted flights to the country for two weeks, while Nigeria suspended flights to India, Brazil and Turkey on fears that new strains of the virus might be added to add cases Eliminate around 20 million people, especially in Lagos.
In South Africa, with by far the largest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Africa, officials are warning of a new spike as winter approaches the southern hemisphere.
Pakistan is in the middle of a third wave. One-day deaths hit the highest level in the entire pandemic on April 28, with 201 deaths.
Health officials added hundreds more hospital beds. The oxygen production had almost doubled compared to the previous year to 800 tons per day. At the peak of the surge in recent weeks, 90% of that production has been consumed.
The number of new cases has decreased slightly this week from a running average of around 6,000 per day.
“Thank goodness we have managed this huge increase so far because we have proactively built capacity for the entire system,” said Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar.
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However, he warned the country that more than 200 million people could face disaster at the Indian level if people fail to adhere to precautionary measures that have been largely ignored. The government has declined calls to lock down but warns that this may change.
“Be careful. For you and your loved ones,” he said in a tweet.