COVID-19 in Egypt

Safely through corona crisis? Go on, take my used mask

Even now, during the coronavirus pandemic, risk awareness in Egypt is disturbingly low. What lies behind this phenomenon? By Khaled el-Khamissi

The time: one o’clock in the afternoon. The setting: outside the front door of a bank in Cairo. A play for three people: a woman in her early-to-mid-sixties. A security guard at the bank, around thirty years old. And a man of about forty. The following dialogue takes place:

The security guard to the woman: "I can’t let you into the bank without a mask."

The woman (imploringly): "My boy, I won’t be in there very long. I just want to change a little money and I’ll come straight back out."

The guard: "I’m sorry, madam. I’ve been given clear instructions. No one comes into the bank without a mask. And you don’t want to get me into trouble, now, do you?"

Just then, a man walks out of the bank, his face dutifully covered with a mask. He realises what they are talking about and takes the mask off.

The man (turning to the lady): "Have this one."

The woman (with a huge smile of relief): "You’re my saviour. How much is it?"

The man: "No, no. I didn’t pay anything for it, either. I got it from a gentleman who was just on his way out."

The woman: "Thank you so much."

She puts the mask on and enters the bank.

This scene proves what we have always known anyway: that in Egypt, the concept of risk awareness is very different from that of most developed nations, and has more in common with poorer countries. Every day on the streets of Cairo, you see whole families on the back of a single motorbike, one man, his wife and three or four children.

And of course, none of them will be wearing a helmet, as the law says motorbike riders must. Or the people who travel crouched on the roofs of train carriages. Or those daredevils who hang out of the rear doors of overcrowded city buses as they travel at full speed. There is no shortage of examples.

A father driving his five children on a motorbike to Tahrir Square in Cairo (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Risk awareness rock bottom: "every day on the streets of Cairo, you see whole families on the back of a single motorbike, one man, his wife and three or four children. And of course, none of them will be wearing a helmet, as the law says motorbike riders must. Or the people who travel crouched on the roofs of train carriages. Or those daredevils who hang out of the rear doors of the overcrowded city buses as they travel at full speed. There is no shortage of examples," writes Al-Khamissi

I recall an experience I once had in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. To cut a long story short, I had booked a tour of the ancient sights there with a local travel agent. An ageing minibus was supposed to shuttle us from one attraction to the next. There were about ten of us, I remember a couple from Brazil and one from Columbia.

One of the tourists suddenly asked the driver where the seatbelts are. The driver replied that there weren’t any. But to reassure the man, he promised that we would go nice and slowly. The tourist, however – a Canadian – declined and decided not to go on the tour in such circumstances.

Then it occurred to the driver that the only available seatbelt left on the bus was for the passenger seat beside him. At which point the man left his wife in the lurch, climbed into the passenger seat and checked to make sure the seatbelt worked. Finally he nodded and declared he was now prepared to take part in the tour. He and his wife were the only people on the bus who had what you might call "first-world citizenship".

The rest of us were bewildered by his attitude, to put it mildly. Personally, I was surprised that he left his wife at the back of the minibus rather than asking her to take the seatbelt. As if he wanted to signal that "inconsiderate individualism" and "awareness of risk" were the two crucial pillars of his culture.

For most Egyptians, there is an occult power that rules over the visible world

For a long time, I have been preoccupied with this one extremely insistent question: why has the general perception of risk in Egypt fallen to such a disturbing level? And all the more now that we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic: this question assails me in the crush of the markets, which feels like the Egyptians have decided to take up a mantra of "social contact" rather than "social distancing".

Judging by what I have observed, there are four parts to the answer:

Firstly – the occult and the visible world are overlaid on each other. Most Egyptians wake up in the morning and seem to say: "Oh God, I sleep when you order it, I wake when you order it, for everyone belongs to you." They draw a sense of security and peace from the folk and religious legacies handed down to them. And despite all the differences between these legacies, they both flow into one another in people’s minds.

As a result, a lot of Egyptians’ views on life, death and the dangers that threaten them are fed by this constantly-flowing stream of folk analogies and religious signs. For everything is written on a tablet in God’s "safekeeping". Before we are even born, God already knows the moment of our death. And so no man can die when it is not his time. Yes, we have to take care of our lives, but if we do that, then the rest is up to God.

And the trust in God is unconditional, in order to satisfy him. This divine goodwill is fundamental to Egyptian life. There is an occult power that rules over our visible world. We have to stay on the right side of this power and do our best to appease it.

Individualism has not become entrenched in Egyptian society

Second – the rights of the individual are realised within the community. In Egypt, a person is supported and protected by the community that surrounds him (family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours), but not by the government, which insists on its laws. He knows that if he should get sick or die it will be the community, his social circle, rather than the state apparatus, which will support his family.

The feeling of safety that an individual has here therefore results from the existence of other people, and not through being obliged to obey laws. The fundamental thing here is that people live in the middle of a community. How can you ask them to comply with something like "social distancing"? Individualism is not something that has become entrenched in Egyptian society.

Third – the socio-economic costs for personal safety are immensely high. How is someone supposed to positively cling to life when there is so much deprivation? Because in the face of the economic crisis, people are often left with no choice but to find primary solutions to the problems of day-to-day living. These families, for instance, who are frequently seen riding six to a motorbike (and I know that readers may scarcely believe that number, but this really is how things are) – doesn’t the father or mother know what danger they are putting themselves and their children in? Of course they do. But what are the alternatives? Other forms of transport, perhaps? Unfortunately, these either don’t exist or are too expensive for them.

We live under a general, tyrannical feeling of absolute insecurity

And fourth and lastly – in our country, there is not even a minimum of human dignity or real security. One long phase in which Egyptians can neither feel safe nor valued as human beings follows another, giving rise to a collective sense of general depression. When someone is forced to work several jobs just to survive, and it still isn’t enough; when people don’t believe in a fair justice system; when the farm labourer in his village knows he is drinking dirty water; when I know that I live in a country with the highest rate of hepatitis C worldwide, then – and the examples could go on and on – there arises a general sense that our quality of life is not worth much. Which in turn leads to a collective feeling of psychosocial trauma.

And this question has nothing to do with the consciousness of the individual, with the quality of his education or his economic status. It is an issue that runs through every layer of society. A few days ago, I saw a mother behind the wheel of a luxury car, with her small daughter sitting on her lap. By Egyptian standards there can be no doubt she was well-off. And I’m very sure she didn’t intend to put her daughter’s life at risk. And yet she allowed herself to be enticed into this irresponsible decision. Why? Because we live under a general, tyrannical feeling of absolute insecurity. What she did, then, was trivial in comparison to this overarching sense of constant endangerment.

Though this question confuses me and leaves me baffled, dear reader, I have attempted to air it here with you. Perhaps one day I will be gripped by the enthusiasm to write a book about it.

Khaled al-Khamissi

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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