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Egypt tightens sanctions for those who refuse to wear protective masks

Egypt’s parliament approved a new bill that punishes citizens with imprisonment or a fine if they refuse to bury coronavirus victims or wear protective masks.
A woman wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) walks in front of the closed Sayyida Zainab Mosque near markets that sell traditional lanterns in Cairo, Egypt, April 12, 2020. Picture taken April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC2N8G9BNEVV

CAIRO — On April 22, the Egyptian parliament approved a draft law that Mohamed al-Amary, head of the parliament’s Health Affairs Committee, submitted to amend some provisions of the 1958 Law No. 137 regarding health precautions to prevent infectious diseases, in context of the country's precautionary measures taken to guard against the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaker of parliament Ali Abdel Aal said parliament approved the draft and sent it to the State Council for review. It will then need President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ratification before it is published in the Official Gazette.

On April 23, Amary said in a phone conversation with Egyptian media correspondent Wael el-Ibrashi that parliament’s Health Affairs Committee approved the amendments, which punish those who refuse to bury COVID-19 fatalities or wear masks outside their houses.

Dozens of villagers gathered in a cemetery in the Shubra al-Bahou village in Dakahlia governorate on April 11 and prevented a family from burying a doctor who died of COVID-19.

After firing tear gas, security forces intervened to resolve the conflict and allow for the burial of the deceased doctor; 23 protesters were arrested.

The refusal to bury the body sparked controversy, and many citizens reacted negatively to it. Egypt's Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, issued a statement about the incident, saying, “The current refusal to bury a doctor who died of the coronavirus is unethical and violates humanity and religion. It is dangerous to lose our humanity and allow our selfishness to prevail. A person would then die of hunger, while his neighbor is well-fed, and people would perish without finding someone to bury them.”

The Egyptian Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa April 11, stating that “no person should deprive his fellow human of this divine right of burial, about which God said ‘thereof We created you, and thereunto We return you, and thence We bring you forth a second time.’” 

On April 1, Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed issued a decision to include the coronavirus on the infectious diseases list that is annexed to the 1958 Law No. 137 to prevent infectious diseases.

Amary told Al-Monitor in a phone interview that Zayed’s decision to include the coronavirus in the infectious disease list annexed to the law means that all procedures and provisions for infectious diseases in this law shall also apply to patients with the coronavirus.

He explained that Article 10 of said law grants the minister of health the power to issue necessary decisions to monitor and quarantine specific individuals, including individuals coming from abroad if they are suspected of carrying an infectious disease. It also allows the minister to impose a ban on the entry of some goods imported from abroad to prevent the spread of any infectious disease. This text now applies to the coronavirus also.

Amary indicated that the bill he submitted to parliament would impose a fine of between 300 and 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($19 to $317) on citizens who do not wear medical masks if the Ministry of Health instructs them to do so at any time and in any geographical area. He indicated that the bill also includes a fine or prison sentence in the event of obstruction or interruption of the burial of the deceased with COVID-19, in accordance with the health procedures and requirements issued and implemented by the ministry.

He stressed that the amended law was drafted based on the spread of the coronavirus and the need to tighten sanctions. The law on infectious diseases dates back to 1958, and its fines are too low relative to the current financial situation and the value of the currency. He stated that the emergence and recurrence of negative phenomena, such as preventing some families from burying the deceased due to COVID-19, prompted the ministry to impose stricter sanctions reaching imprisonment and a 5,000 to 10,000 Egyptian pound ($317 to $635) fine. 

Alaa Ghannam, health expert and director of the Health and Human Rights Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Al-Monitor over the phone that the recurrent prevention of families of COVID-19 victims from burying their dead prompted the Health Ministry to add this virus to its list of infectious diseases and to amend the law and make the sanctions harsher.

Ghannam pointed out that the Ministry of Health is taking all necessary health measures to deal with victims of COVID-19 in terms of burials. The bodies are transported inside tightly closed plastic bags and then placed in a closed box that is only opened in the cemetery. The person carrying out the burial has to wear a protective mask. He asserted that citizens’ prevention of burials out of fear of contagion is totally unjustified.

He mentioned a similar incident in Boulos village in the Beheira governorate, where the residents also refused to bury the body of a person who died of COVID-19 at a hospital in Alexandria. Ghannam agrees with increasing the fine but disagreed with the prison sentence. Instead, he proposed stricter fines in addition to raising awareness among citizens and informing them that they cannot contract the virus through burial, as it is not transmitted through the soil.

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