Egyptian government may be concealing extent of COVID-19 spread in army

While official figures from the health ministry state 456 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country as of March 26, there may be at least 550 cases in the Egyptian army alone, say activists

March 27, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
The death of Major general Khaled Shaltout due to COVID-19 was announced on March 23.

Egypt, the first African country to confirm a positive case of COVID-19, has registered a total of 495 cases on March 27, Friday, as per the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The previous data, the government  data at 10:45 am local time indicated that of the 456 cases, 95 patients had recovered and 21 had died, while the rest were not in a critical condition.

However, activists and experts have repeatedly alleged that the government is concealing the real number of cases, which is estimated to be much higher. Mahmoud Gamal, the director of Monitoring and Documentation Unit at the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies (EIPSS), told Arabi21 that the number of COVID-19 cases in the military alone is at least 550.  

Middle East Monitor quoted him as saying, “There is a lot of secrecy surrounding this matter. Most of those afflicted with COVID-19 work in the Engineering Authority, and have been quarantined at the Almaza Military Hospital in Cairo and the Sa‘ka Forces Hospital in Sharkia Governorate to the north of Cairo.”

The first case in the country was reported on February 14. The victim – the first to be identified on the continent – was a Chinese national from Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease was first reported. 

 The Egyptian health ministry thenmaintained that no new cases had been identified until March 2, when a Canadian national tested positive. 

However, by then, multiple cases had been identified in different countries that could be traced back to Egypt. Six of these were in France, three in China and one each in Taiwan and Canada. All of them had traveled to these countries from Egypt.

“However, the Egyptian Ministry of Health refuses to admit that there are any new cases inside the country,” said human rights organization Egypt Watch in a statement on March 2, just before the government admitted a second case. The statement added that as “transparency is the first way to prevent the risks of corona,” due to the actions of the government, “Egypt has become, in the eyes of a number of countries of the world, a source and exporter of the virus, which prompted those countries one after the other to issue travel ban decisions to and from Egypt.”

According to Ahmed Samih, a rights activist who had claimed to have information about five  confirmed cases at the Tanta Military Hospital, “Usually, the police and authorities in military hospitals are not subject to direct supervision by the Egyptian Ministry of Health, which means that cases in military hospitals will not be included in the ministry’s statistics, and WHO will not be informed unless these hospitals declare them.” 

The Egyptian government has not made this vital information available to the public and to the international agencies, Samih alleged. 

On March 9, when the first fatality due to COVID-19 was reported, the total number of cases confirmed by the government were 55. It was only after the second death on March 12 that the government shut schools and universities and imposed restrictions on public gatherings. 

Major general Shafi Abdel Halim Dawoud, the director of Major Projects Department of the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces, was found to be COVID-19 positive on March 10. The government concealed this information, which was revealed three days later by the rights organization, We Record.  

While being infected, major general Halim had met the chief of staff of the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces general Mahmoud Ahmed Shaheen and the chief of staff of the Water Department of the Engineering Authority major general Khaled Shaltout, both of whom also tested positive.

On March 23, a military spokesperson announced the death of major generals Halim and Shaltout. Some media organizations and rights groups carried reports stating that general Shahin was also dead. The military did not publish any statement refuting this claim.

The pro-government media widely reported that the generals were infected while working on the frontlines against the pandemic during sanitizing operations at affected areas. However, this has been refuted by Gamal, who has alleged that they were infected before the army operation to sanitize public places began.

“The spread of the coronavirus within the army is linked to the fact that an officer in the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces returned from an assignment in Italy and tested positive for the virus.. [T]he infected officer had already met generals Dawoud and Shaltout to brief them on his trip,” Gamal claimed.

The two generals then met other senior officers, who have since attended high-level meetings including with president Al-Sisi, he added.