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COVID-19 is exacerbating neo-colonialism, including in Egypt

As the number of medical staff testing positive for COVID-19 continues to climb, hospitals have closed their doors across the country

April 17, 2020 at 3:07 pm

On Tuesday the UK’s Ambassador to Egypt, Geoffrey Adams, hailed the news that a shipment of protective medical gowns would be sent from Egypt to the UK. A great example of UK-Egypt cooperation,” he wrote on Twitter. “Two countries working together against the challenge we both face. Thanks to everyone who made this possible.”

It was a shocking announcement for anyone who has been following Egypt’s battle with the virus over the last couple of months. Egyptian doctors on the front line are suffering from a severe shortage of PPE, sterilisation equipment, and gloves. They have tried to air their grievances on social media but the regime has moved to silence them, including arresting one doctor in Alexandria after he drew attention to the lack of masks in a simple Facebook post.

As the number of medical staff testing positive for COVID-19 continues to climb, hospitals have closed their doors across the country. To make matters worse, most medics report not receiving promised bonuses, whilst others have said they are not being provided with a place to quarantine after their 14-day stints with infected patients.

Critics have warned that the vastly underfunded and mismanaged health care system in the north African state is close to collapse as a result of years of corruption and lack of investment – so why send the gowns to the UK instead of your own front line? The UK is Egypt’s biggest foreign investor and Egypt is keen to ensure this continues.

It’s true that medics here in the UK are desperately in need of PPE, but Egypt is already at a disadvantage as a developing country. Plus, the UK missed out on an EU scheme to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves, three times.

READ: Despite drastic measures, Covid-19 exposes educational inequalities in Morocco

Several days ago, there was an outcry following the announcement that Egypt was sending the second shipment of medical aid in less than a month to Italy, turning a blind eye to these severe shortages at home. Experts pointed out that Egypt was keen to keep the arms trade, economic cooperation and investments from the Italian oil giant Eni going and it was putting this above its own people.

Women wearing respiratory masks are seen on 23 February in Milan, Italy [Pier Marco Tacca/Anadolu Agency]

Women wearing respiratory masks are seen on 23 February in Milan, Italy [Pier Marco Tacca/Anadolu Agency]

Shipments like this are political and prove that coronavirus is far from being a great leveller, one of the theories that circulated as the virus spread. The virus has in fact entrenched neo-colonialism and exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. Yes, COVID-19 affects every community on the planet, but it affects us in different ways.

Throughout this crisis poor countries are bottom of the pecking order with manufacturers prioritising shipments of testing kits to America and Europe over Africa and Latin America.

A New York Times article tells the story of Dr Amilcar Tanuri, who runs a public laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the worst hit Latin American country so far. When Tanuri called private firms on three continents to get chemical reagents for testing samples, he was told that the US and Europe had bought them up for months ahead. At the same time, Europe and the US have put their own restrictions on exports with Trump even calling for an American-only vaccine.

Offensive racist comments, which help keep this world order in place, have been aired. Earlier this month, Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin Hospital in Paris, said a potential vaccine for COVID-19 should be tested first in Africa, and then compared Africans to prostitutes:

It may be provocative. Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?

His words have haunting echoes with the not too distant past. In the sixties, when Algeria was under French control, France conducted nuclear bomb tests in the Sahara Desert. The radioactive spread from the tests stretched across West Africa and up to southern Europe. Between 27,000 and 60,000 Algerians were affected by the radiation.

READ: The coronavirus pandemic is a test of our humanity, morality and solidarity

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the head of the British Medical Association has called on the government to investigate why the first ten medics to die of COVID-19 have roots in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Chair Dr Chaad Nagpaul has speculated that they may have felt less able to say no to working without PPE compared to their white counterparts as they feel more bullied and harassed from their superiors. After pressure mounted, the Tory government has agreed to an inquiry.

After months of racist rhetoric from the Conservative Party about how immigrants are trying to steal our jobs, a plane load of Romanian fruit pickers recently arrived in the UK to fill farm vacancies after not enough Brits came forward for the jobs. Britain’s biggest bigot Katie Hopkins has called the timing of the lockdown suspicious since it happened over Easter so it can be lifted in time for Ramadan; one Twitter commenter suggested the Muslim medics who died of COVID-19 probably contracted it in the mosque.

As a virus that is spreading fast it must be curbed everywhere in the world, not just close to home at the expense of others abroad. In the early days of the pandemic a meme circulated on the internet when it was impossible to buy hand sanitiser in the supermarket due to stockpiling: “Remember that to stop you getting coronavirus other people have to wash their hands too.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.