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Amnesty condemns Egypt over detention of medics criticising coronavirus response Open in fullscreen

Florence Dixon

Amnesty condemns Egypt over detention of medics criticising coronavirus response

Egypt's medics say they have been denied PPE, infection training and treatment for Covid-19 [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 June, 2020

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Egypt must stop its campaign of arrests and intimidation against health workers who express alarm over its response to Covid-19, which has killed at least 68 medics, Amnesty has said.
Amnesty International has called on the Egyptian government to immediately stop its persecution of healthcare workers who have been jailed just for speaking out against the disastrous lack of protection for doctor and nurses battling the coronavirus.

Drawing on interviews and evidence provided by doctors, lawyers and others, the group said the Egyptian authorities had launched a campaign of arbitrary arrests of those who criticise the handling of the Covid-19 crisis and unsafe working conditions, on spurious charges of "spreading false news" and "terrorism".

Whistleblowers have voiced alarm over hospital conditions, a shortage of personal protective equipment [PPE], inadequate infection control training, a lack of testing for health workers, and limited access to life-saving treatment, said the report.

The Egyptian Medical Syndicate, the country's largest doctor's union, penned a stinging open letter to the health ministry, accusing the government of negligence "tantamount to death through a dereliction of duty" over the lack of protection for doctors during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Syndicate said that at least 68 frontline healthcare workers are confirmed to have died from Covid-19, including several who were denied treatment as the coronavirus isolation hospitals were full.

Many doctors have resigned or gone on strike in protest, saying they have been forced to treat Covid-19 patients without PPE.

In response, MPs and pro-regime media and called on striking doctors to be sacked, blaming their complaints on a Muslim Brotherhood-orchestrated conspiracy.

Pro-regime social media accounts have also accused the doctors of treason and issued death threats against them.

Philip Luther, Amnesty's Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa said: "Instead of protecting frontline health care workers by addressing their legitimate concerns over their safety and livelihoods, the Egyptian authorities are handling the Covid-19 crisis with their usual repressive tactics".

"Health care workers have to make an impossible choice: risk their lives or face prison if they dare to speak out," he added.

The syndicate claims the death toll of frontline workers from coronavirus is likely to be far higher than official figures, due to it not including medics who died of complications associated with Covid-19 but were not tested.

It also does not encompass nurses, dentists, pharmacists, technicians, delivery workers, cleaning staff and other essential workers.

Eight health workers arrested

Amnesty said it had documented eight healthcare workers - including six doctors and two pharmacists - who have been arbitrarily detained between March and June by the National Security Agency (NSA) over social media posts expressing concerns about the government's coronavirus response.

One of the doctors arrested, 26-year-old Alaa Shaaban Hamida, has been in pre-trial detention since her arrest on 28 March, even though she is pregnant.

She was reported to the NSA by the director of the hospital where she works, after bypassed his mandate and reported a case of coronavirus directly to the health ministry.

She is charged with "membership in a terrorist group", "spreading false news", and "misusing social media".
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"Health care workers in Egypt have been arrested, criminalised and prosecuted simply for daring to express their personal safety concerns and, in some cases, have been denied access to adequate health care," Luther said.

"Officials have often hailed health care workers as Egypt’s ‘white army’ for bravely fighting at the frontlines to protect people's health, but apparently with the expectation that they will do so in silence," he added.

Amnesty's report added that doctors who complain about unsafe conditions have been transferred to isolation hospitals where patients with Covid-19 are quarantined, or to hospitals in other governorates as punishment.

This has been done without regard for older doctors or those with health conditions who are at a higher risk of dying from the virus.

Pharmacists who complain about working conditions have also been punitively transferred to other parts of the country.

"Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian authorities to put an immediate end to their campaign of harassment and intimidation against health care workers who are speaking out. The campaign not only further undermines freedom of expression in the country, but also hamstrings the efforts of those tackling the health crisis and puts their and others’ lives in danger," said Luther.

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