Egypt Arrests Doctors, Silences Critics over Virus Outbreak

06 July 2020

A doctor in Egypt was arrested after writing a report about the country's broken health system. A pharmacist there was arrested at work after writing online about a shortage of protective equipment. An editor was taken from his home after questioning official coronavirus numbers. And a pregnant doctor was arrested after a coworker used her phone to report a suspected coronavirus case.

As Egyptian health officials fight the spread of COVID-19, security agencies are fighting the spread of criticism of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

At least 10 doctors and six reporters have been arrested since the coronavirus hit Egypt in February, rights groups say.

Other health workers say they have been warned by officials to keep quiet -- or face punishment. One foreign reporter fled the country, fearing arrest. Two others have been warned about "professional violations."

Coronavirus infections are rising in the country of 100 million. As of Monday, the Health Ministry had recorded 76,253 infections, including 3,343 deaths. Egypt has reported the highest number of deaths from the disease in the Arab world.

"Every day I go to work, I sacrifice myself and my whole family. "Then they arrest my colleagues to send us a message," a doctor in Cairo told The Associated Press. He did not want to give his name because he feared government action against him. The same is true for all other doctors who spoke with the AP.

In 2013, el-Sissi was Egypt's defense minister. He led the military's removal of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. In the years since, el-Sissi has punished anyone who questions him. Many have been arrested.

In recent months, those arrested have included doctors who speak out about the lack of protective equipment or question the official infection count.

Security forces have also taken action against foreign reporters. In March, Egypt expelled a journalist for The Guardian who made note of a scientific report disputing the official virus count. Egypt's state information body has summoned journalists from The Washington Post and New York Times over their critical reporting during the health crisis.

In this March 29, 2020 file photo, Egyptian security forces cordon off roads during curfew hours as prevention measures due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)
In this March 29, 2020 file photo, Egyptian security forces cordon off roads during curfew hours as prevention measures due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

A government press official did not answer the AP's requests for comment on the arrests of doctors and reporters.

El-Sissi has said the spread of COVID-19 was under control. He called critics "enemies of the state."

In the past weeks, officials have gathered medical supplies to prepare for more patients. The military has set up temporary hospitals with 4,000 beds. The government has provided free face coverings to citizens at metro stops.

The government has increased testing within hospitals. It has ordered private companies to make face coverings and other protective equipment for health workers. El-Sissi has also increased the earnings of medical workers.

But healthcare works are telling a different story on social media. Doctors say shortages have forced them to buy face coverings with their own money. Families beg for hospital beds. Pharmacists say they are being forced to treat suspected virus patients with little training.

The spread has pushed the Egyptian Medical Syndicate into a new position. Usually a non-political group of professionals, it is now the country's only voice for doctors' rights.

Last month, the group released a letter to the public prosecutor demanding the release of five doctors who were detained for expressing opinions about the government's ability to control the virus spread.

In a televised appearance, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly criticized doctors' "negligence and mismanagement" for the growing number of cases.

Angry doctors answered, saying they are untrained, underpaid and dealing with equipment shortages.

So far at least 117 doctors, 39 nurses and 32 pharmacists have died from COVID-19, syndicate members say.

In its latest statement, the syndicate said the growing number of detentions are causing fear among health workers.

"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. He confirmed the arrests of eight doctors and two pharmacists. Two have been released, he noted.

Last week, Dr. Ahmed Safwat disappeared from his Cairo neighborhood. At first, other doctors where he worked thought he was self-isolating due to possible signs of coronavirus. But his family reported him missing. A lawyer working for the detained doctors confirmed Dr. Safwat's arrest. He has been charged with terrorism for criticizing the government online.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words In This Story

pharmacist – n. a person whose job is to prepare and sell the drugs and medicines that a doctor prescribes for patients

colleague – n. a co-worker

syndicate – n. a union of workers

prosecutor – n. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty

negligence – n. failure to take the care that a responsible person usually takes : lack of normal care or attention

isolate - v. to put or keep (someone or something) in a place or situation that is separate from others

summon - v. to order (someone) to come to a place

journalist - n. a person whose job is collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio