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Millions of Egyptians out in the streets despite coronavirus lockdown

Many irregular workers in Egypt are turning a blind eye to the curfew and measures imposed by authorities and heading to work, as they are concerned about making ends meet.

CAIRO — With the rapid spread of the coronavirus in many countries around the world, and at a time when the Egyptian government urges citizens to stay at home, imposing several measures to fight the outbreak, many people still wander around in the streets without caring about the virus, preoccupied with more important matters.

These people are the most affected by the crisis, but they do not have the luxury of staying at home. They are irregular workers, a segment of society that amounts to 12 million to 14 million people, according to figures Al-Monitor obtained from Secretary-General of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation Mohamed Wahballah.

An irregular worker is a person who works without benefitting from insurance or social security and gets paid by the day.

Despite the government warning citizens about the country entering the third stage of the outbreak of the pandemic — which is when the source of the infection becomes untraceable and difficult to control — thousands and even millions are yet to realize the seriousness of the virus and are struggling to secure a livelihood.

Mohammed Jaber, who works in construction, told Al-Monitor, “I have to work to feed my family. If I do not work every day, who will feed my children? I heard about the coronavirus, but what can I do? I must work every day; health is the least of my worries. We are basically dead already.”

On April 4, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had instructed that activities and inaugurations of major national projects that were supposed to be carried out during 2020 be postponed until 2021, including the move to the new administrative capital and the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, given the circumstances.

However, Minister of Housing Assem El-Gazzar had decided April 2 that construction companies should return to work at full capacity, which many believed to be inconsistent with the state's plan to limit the spread of the virus.

Many major construction companies had decided to halt work on project sites, fearing for the lives of their workers, but work on some small projects never stopped.

Jaber noted, “The foreman gave us face masks; some of us wore them, others gave them to their children. For me, my children are more important than anything else. Before the coronavirus crisis, I used to get paid 150 Egyptian pounds [about $9.50] a day. Now I work less, and some days I do not even work. But I have to be on the streets every day just in case I find some work in exchange for any amount of money. It is not like I'm a bank employee.”

On April 8, the Ministry of Health confirmed 1,560 coronavirus cases, including 305 people who were discharged from isolation in hospitals and recovered, and 103 deaths. The situation took an even more serious turn April 3 after 17 medics at the National Cancer Institute turned out to be infected.

The Egyptian authorities are taking several measures to prevent gatherings in order to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Schools and universities are closed, flights are suspended, mosques and churches are closed, in addition to a curfew that lasts from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., as well as a partial closure of some stores, which greatly affected daily labor workers who fear a total curfew will be imposed in the coming days.

In addition to these preventive measures, on April 8 Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly announced that Egypt’s cabinet decided to deduct 20% from cabinet members’ salaries for three months to support irregular workers.

Furthermore, the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Immigration announced March 17 the disbursement of an exceptional grant of 500 Egyptian pounds ($31.75) to be paid monthly over the next three months to irregular workers. They were asked to promptly register on the ministry's website to apply for the grant.

Hussein Mohammed, a microbus driver, told Al-Monitor, “I applied online [on the first day of the ministry’s announcement] for a government grant, but nobody has called us. Yet still, what can 500 pounds do for a family of five? We cannot survive on 500 pounds.”

Speaking about the preventive measures that he takes, such as disinfecting himself and his vehicle, he jokingly said, “Coronavirus who? Disinfect what? Our lives were halted with the curfew and should a total curfew be imposed, many people will die of hunger.”

Public transportation is particularly crowded in the few hours leading up to the curfew, prompting the Ministry of Transport to operate additional trains in an attempt to contain the crisis.

The vegetable and fruit market in a street next to Faisal neighborhood, one of the largest and busiest neighborhoods in Giza governorate, is packed with vendors and customers who seem to care more about securing a livelihood and food supply than staying healthy.

Social distancing is nonexistent in these streets, and so are preventive measures — only a few people wear masks.

Umm Sid, a bird seller who travels twice a week from Fayoum governorate to Giza governorate to sell her domestic birds, told Al-Monitor, “God is our protector. We do not think about the coronavirus. What keeps us up at night is gaining our livelihood. I'm afraid a lockdown will be imposed and traveling between governorates becomes impossible.”

She added, “I heard about the government grant on TV, but I did not know how to apply for it. Maybe 500 pounds can help us if a total curfew is imposed.”

Spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower Haitham Saad El-Din told Al-Monitor, “Around 1½ million people have applied for the grant as of the end of last week [April 2]. The committee — formed for this purpose and headed by Prime Minister Madbouly — is examining the data and setting up mechanisms to disburse the grant.”

Several initiatives were launched to help the families of irregular workers. Al-Azhar Al-Sharif announced a grant for irregular workers of 500 pounds from the Zakat and Charity House, while the Egyptian Food Bank launched a campaign to distribute half a million food boxes to irregular workers, in addition to many other community contributions that try to help the groups that are mostly affected by the preventive measures taken by the Egyptian state to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

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