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Coronavirus free, Egyptians in North Sinai see military blockade as a blessing for first time Open in fullscreen

Ella Linskens

Coronavirus free, Egyptians in North Sinai see military blockade as a blessing for first time

Egypt's North Sinai province has recorded no cases of coronavirus [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 April, 2020

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Egypt's imposition of a mandatory "self-isolation" in the North Sinai governorate may allow it to steer clear of a coronavirus outbreak.
The North Sinai governorate in eastern Egypt appears to be one of the world's few remaining regions untouched by an outbreak of coronavirus

As citizens across Egypt hunker down, self-isolate, and watch cases in their districts rise, many may turn their thoughts to the marginalised governorate of North Sinai - where not a single case has been recorded.

Coronavirus has not spared Egypt's neighbours, nor any other Egyptian district, including South Sinai.

Egyptians will find answers in the tight military blockade that has long prevented independent observers, journalists and non-residents from entering North Sinai province.

Egypt's North Sinai province is home to the country's IS affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, and other extremist militants who have been engaged in a bloody insurgency against the state since 2011.

When local militants intensified their attacks after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power in a 2013 coup, the regime escalated its counter-insurgency in a scorched earth campaign that has seen Egypt accused of "serious and widespread abuses" against civilians.

Now, Egypt's imposition of a mandatory "self-isolation" on the North Sinai governorate is seen by some residents as a roundabout "blessing", blocking coronavirus from reaching the province.

A medical source in North Sinai's Al-Arish General Hospital confirmed to The New Arab's Arabic-language service that the province has not recorded a single case of coronavirus.

And this is not without testing. The medical source told The New Arab that certain cases raised alarm but that all tests returned negative results.

The preventative and medical capacity in North Sinai compares badly to that in other areas of Egypt, as does the standards of hospitals and health centres.

But the medical source said the reason no cases have been reported "is primarily due to the lack of contact between residents of North Sinai and individuals from outside the province".

"Facing the virus primarily requires a compulsory quarantine of citizens in their homes for fear of contact with infected persons. This is what the state follows [in North Sinai] at the level of the republic."

Isolated but particularly vulnerable

The situation in the besieged Gaza Strip is loosely analogous to that of North Sinai - both are cut off from the world by a military blockade. 

And both regions, where health infrastructure has been neglected and underfunded, will be particularly vulnerable should there be an outbreak of coronavirus. 

"There is increased pressure on the medical staff in the governorate because they live in exceptional security conditions with continued military operations carried out by the Egyptian army," the source in North Sinai's Al-Abreesh hospital told The New Arab.

"Consequently, the arrival of the virus in the province will entail a real humanitarian catastrophe," he added, describing a lack of hospital beds, intensive care rooms, respiratory equipment, personal protective equipment and expertise in dealing with epidemics.

The medical source said the "situation calls for the tightening of precautionary measures on all the governorate's entry and exit points".

He suggested medical checks be carried out on those returning from areas west of the Suez Canal, such as the Ismailia governorate, as well as those returning from Port Said and South Sinai.

North Sinai residents are currently able to re-enter the governorate without undergoing any checks, the source said, raising fears that it is a matter of when, not if, coronavirus will reach the area.

Government neglect

To halt the spread of coronavirus through Egypt, President Sisi's government has introduced a series of emergency preventative measures. 

[Click to enlarge]

But North Sinai, which has suffered from neglect for years, is not included in these plans.

Hostilities also do not appear to be easing in the region. The Egyptian military reportedly carried out air strikes at the end of March, Al Monitor reported, in response to armed groups blowing up five electricity towers in Sheikh Zuweid.

The bombings led to power outages and a halt to water pumping in certain cities, causing increased concern among residents that they will be unable to take proper precautions against coronavirus.

Calls are now being made for Egypt to change its approach to North Sinai so that the "catastrophe" described by its doctors can be avoided.

In the meantime, social activists in North Sinai are stepping in to fill the government void, launching several campaigns in recent days.

Activist Hisham Ahmed said the campaigns aim to "educate citizens and encourage them to take precautions and increase their attention to personal hygiene". 

Ahmed told The New Arab that campaigns launched in the cities of Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Bir al-Abed are sterilizing main areas and roads, distributing informative leaflets to citizens, and urging people to reduce their movement as much as possible.

Read more: Egypt builds a wall around Sharm el-Sheikh to 'keep out terrorists and Bedouins'

"Sinai's residents have not been able to find any good in the blockade other than that it has delayed the arrival of coronavirus," Ahmad said.

"The emergency measures taken by the state, which blocks foreign delegations, tourists, and anyone without a North Sinai ID from entering the province, has contributed to the virus not reaching us."

Ahmad said official Egyptian news outlets are now acknowledging North Sinai's isolation, citing it as the reason no coronavirus cases have been recorded in the governorate.

Coronavirus "confirms repeated assertions that North Sinai has been living under siege for years", he said.

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