Egypt arrests at least ten doctors and warns health workers to keep quiet after medics spoke out about coronavirus crisis as country records highest death toll in the Arab world
- Rights groups say 16 doctors and journalists have been arrested since February
- Doctors voiced fury after PM appeared to blame medics for a spike in deaths
- Egypt has had 76,253 cases and 3,343 deaths, more than other Arab countries
Egypt has arrested at least 10 doctors since the start of the coronavirus crisis and warned health workers they could be punished if they speak out.
Security agencies have tried to stifle criticism of president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his government’s handling of the pandemic, which has caused 76,253 infections and 3,343 deaths in Egypt – the worst death toll in the Arab world.
Doctors have been voicing anger over shortages of protective gear and an apparent government attempt to blame them for the spike in deaths.
At least 10 doctors and six journalists have been arrested since the virus first hit Egypt in February, according to rights groups.
A health worker wearing protective gear takes a swab from a motorist at a drive-through centre at Ain Shams University in Cairo – as Egypt battles a spike in deaths
President el-Sissi has stamped out dissent since leading a military takeover in 2013, jailing Islamist opponents as well as secular activists and journalists.
One foreign correspondent has fled the country during the virus pandemic, fearing arrest, and another two have been reprimanded over ‘professional violations’.
The military has set up field hospitals with 4,000 beds, scaled up testing and ordered companies to churn out face masks and other supplies.
But doctors say they are forced to purchase surgical masks with their meagre salaries, while families plead for intensive care beds.
Health workers in Egypt say they have been warned by administrators to keep quiet or face punishment.
One doctor in greater Cairo said: ‘Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family. Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message. I see no light on the horizon.’
The pandemic has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, a non-political professional group, into a new role as an advocate for doctors’ rights.
Last month, the union released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding the release of five doctors detained for expressing opinions about the virus response.
Another syndicate member, Mohamed el-Fawal, landed in jail last week after demanding an apology from the prime minister over comments that appeared to blame health workers for a spike in deaths.
Incensed doctors hit back, saying they are under-trained, under-paid and under-resourced, and struggling to save patients.
So far, 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from Covid-19, according to syndicate members’ counts. Thousands have fallen ill.
The government of president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi (pictured) has been criticised for its handling of the pandemic, which has caused 76,253 infections and 3,343 deaths in Egypt
Security forces shut down a syndicate press conference that was set to respond to the prime minister’s comments and discuss supply shortages, according to former leader Mona Mina.
‘These doctors have no history of activism, they were arrested because they offered criticism of their very specific professional circumstances,’ said Amr Magdi of Human Rights Watch, which has confirmed the arrests of eight doctors and two pharmacists.
Two have been released, he said, while the rest remain in pre-trial detention.
Doctors in three provinces say administrators threatened to report them if they publicly expressed frustration toward authorities or failed to show up for work.
In one voice recording, a health deputy in a Nile Delta province can be heard saying: ‘Even if a doctor is dying, he must keep working … or be subjected to the most severe punishment.’
At least 15 individuals have been arrested for broadcasting ‘false news’ about the pandemic, said the UN human rights office.
Four Egyptian journalists who reported on the outbreak remain in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has labeled Egypt among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China.
Those who spread ‘false news’ online about the coronavirus could face up to five years imprisonment and steep fines, Egypt’s top prosecutor has warned.
The coronavirus is surging in the country of 100million people, threatening to overwhelm hospitals.
The death toll of 3,434 is higher than in other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia (1,858) or Iraq (2,368).
With borders shut and flights halted, Egypt’s critical tourism revenue has vanished – testing the economy and the government’s authority.
Although el-Sissi resisted a total lockdown because of the economic impact, schools, mosques, restaurants, malls and clubs were closed early in the outbreak and a nightly curfew imposed.
Last week the government reopened much of society and welcomed hundreds of international tourists despite the spike in deaths.
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