Coronavirus leaves Egypt scrambling to prevent disastrous economic fallout

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - It has been a rough couple of months for Raafat Thabet’s press and dry cleaning business in a leafy district of Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

The 60-year-old father of two’s business is down by 50 per cent but, out of loyalty and a sense of duty, he has not fired any of his five employees, a decision that has deepened his operating losses at a time when the fallout from a worsening outbreak of the coronavirus is depressing businesses despite frantic efforts by the government to prevent the economy from tanking.

Already, the outbreak has shut down Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry, which accounts for up to 15 per cent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and is a main source of foreign currency. Suez Canal revenues and remittances from Egyptians working abroad, two other pillars of the economy, have also been hit.

A stimulus package worth 100 billion Egyptian pounds was announced by the government last month, but economists are forecasting a modest 2 per cent net domestic product growth this year, about a third of last year’s but, if realised, would be a respectable performance given the disastrous fallout from the virus outbreak.

“People don’t go out as much, the schools and universities are closed and everyone is at home at night because of the curfew,” lamented Mr Thabet, who first opened his business in 1988. “So business is down by half but I cannot fire any of my workers. I must have their backs now. If I

don’t at a time like this, who will?” he said.

“We open every morning, do our best and pray that God sends us what keeps us going. But don’t worry, God has something to give to each one of us.”

Mr Thabet’s small business is just one of tens of thousands across this nation of 100 million that have been impacted by the virus outbreak. Some have trimmed staff, others shuttered down to wait out the virus before they reopen. Millions of workers who earn a daily wage at small businesses like Mr Thabet’s have been the most at risk, something the government quickly realised. It rushed to help them with unprecedented cash handouts.

epa08389231 Medical personnel checks an X-ray at the Imbaba Fevers Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, 28 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

A woman wears a protective face mask, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

An Imam makes Adaan, a call to prayer, inside an empty mosque after the government banned all religious activities due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Muslims worldwide began Ramadan this week with dawn-to-dusk fasting, but many will have to forgo the communal prayers and family gatherings that make the holy month special, as authorities maintain lockdowns aimed at slowing the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

A man wears a protective face mask while walking through a sanitizing gate, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

epa08389235 People at the Imbaba Fevers Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, 28 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

epa08389226 Medical personnel check the body temperature of a man at the Imbaba Fevers Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, 28 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

epa08389218 A doctor checks a patient at the Imbaba Fevers Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, 28 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

epa08389219 Medical personnel with patients at the Imbaba Fevers Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, 28 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

Aya Dessouky, public relations specialist at the Giza Systems Education Foundation, packs a newly-fabricated protective face shield, before sending it for use by medical professionals treating COVID-19 coronavirus patients, at their premises in the New Cairo suburb east of the Egyptian capital on April 8, 2020. The company uses digital printing technology mainly to produce assistive devices for people with disabilities, working in a lab called Project Nitrous. The face shield it designed can be printed in plastic, cut out by laser and simply assembled, and started delivering the devices to thousands of doctors -- for free. Many healthcare workers in Egypt's threadbare hospital system must provide their own protective gear, so when the digital design company started 3-D printing face shields, they gratefully accepted. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI

A general view of a police checkpoint at the area of the Cairo suburb of Maadi, during a night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan, Egypt April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

epa08384424 A man wearing a protective face mask walks in street in Cairo, Egypt, 25 April 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease. EPA/Mohamed Hossam

This picture taken on April 24, 2020 on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan shows a view of closed-down shops along Khayamiya Street, or the Street of Tent-makers, in the old city of the Egyptian capital Cairo, almost empty due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed

A member of the medical staff at the infectious diseases unit of the Imbaba hospital in the capital Cairo, is pictured on April 19,2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. / AFP / Ahmed HASAN

A man wearing a protective face mask walks near a granite symbol hand of peace, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, Egypt April 22, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

A woman wearing a protective face mask sits inside an empty metro train, as she travels on a line Shubra al-Khaimah to Tahrir Square, before the start of a night-time curfew amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt April 17, 2020. Picture taken April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Rania Gomaa

epa08373350 Egyptian policemen patrol the Qasr Nile bridge to ensure people abiding by restrictions during the national holiday of Sham el-Nessim marking the beginning of spring season, in Cairo, Egypt, 20 April 2020. Streets and public places across the country remained deserted due to additional coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by the authorities on the national holiday of Sham el-Nessim, a day that usually sees thousands of people going out picnicking in public gardens. EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

TOPSHOT - A picture taken on April 18, 2020 show the Great pyramids lighten-up with blue light and reading with a laser projection the message "Stay Home" on the Giza plateau outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo, on the world heritage day, as the country fights against the spread of the COVID-19, (the novel coronavirus). / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI

epa08362864 A medical worker disinfects an ambulance which transported a possible patient with coronavirus COVID-19 at fever hospital in Embaba district, Giza, Egypt, 14 April 2020. Egyptian authorities has extended a two-week-long curfew, starting on 09 April during which all public transportation in the city is suspended due to the ongoing pandemic of the Covid-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

The government, for its part, has had to tread carefully as it seeks to balance the need to shield people from the ravages of the virus and saving the economy from sinking. Several of the country’s most powerful businessmen have explained that delicate act in blunt, some would say insensitive, terms. Economic collapse, they said, would be just if not more deadly than the virus, so people need to go back to work while taking precautions.

But fully reopening the economy has become a more dangerous proposition as the outbreak grows deadlier.

Egypt on Friday reported the highest number to date of infections in one day, a whopping 495. It’s an increase by more than a hundred over the previous record last week and takes to 8,476 the number of Covid-19 cases since the outbreak. Of these, 1,945 have been cured. The death toll stands at 503 as of Friday night.

Adding to the concern of many over the fragility and limitations of the health care system, a senior health ministry official said last week that quarantine hospitals were currently operating at full capacity, an assertion likely to prompt authorities to convert other medical facilities into isolation centres.

The government does not hide its concern that the outbreak could spiral out of control. It is blaming the negligence of Egyptians in embracing social distancing and avoiding large gatherings for the spike in infections. Curiously, it says it intends to relax some of the counter-coronavirus measures in place later this month to allow a measure of normalcy and a higher gear of economic activity to take effect.

These will include the resumption of domestic flights and reopening resort hotels for Egyptians provided they operate a quarter of their capacity and guests and staff abide by social distancing rules.

Some critics have accused the government of risking lives for the sake of the economy and of serving the interests of businessmen.

“Many had to go out and work; their choice is either to starve or die of the coronavirus,” said economist Salma Hussein. “The government should keep them at home and increase the food they receive through the nationwide ration system. It should also find a way to distribute unemployment benefits among a wider pool of day workers or those working without contracts or social security. This is a moment for rapid rescue.”

However, the government’s approach is supported by a strong argument given the scope of the economic losses incurred thus far due to the coronavirus outbreak. It also echoes the approach adopted by the United States and several western European nations, although the key difference is that those countries have a much better healthcare system than Egypt’s.

But for Egypt, the stakes are high.

Chief among them is the possible loss of the hard-won gains made in the four years since Egypt struck a deal with the IMF in 2016 to receive a $12bn loan to overhaul its economy. In exchange, Egypt adopted a bitter-to-swallow reform programme that included slashing the value of its pound by half, lifting subsidies on fuel and slapping a value added tax on a range of goods and services.

“If it weren’t for those comprehensive reforms on the tax side, on the budget, on foreign exchange and so forth, the situation would have been … even more difficult,” Minister of International Cooperation Rania Al Mashat told CNBC television in an interview. Still the pressure on the economy is immense.

Foreign reserves, for example, fell by a staggering $5.4bn in March alone, while purchasing by non-oil private sector entities, a key indicator of economic health, plummeted to levels not seen since 2011. There was also an initial run on banks over fears of a complete lockdown that never materialised. The Egyptian stock market shed billions of pounds in a matter of days.

Fearing an economic meltdown, the government last week asked the IMF for help under the Rapid Financing Instrument and is also looking to negotiate a new stand-by deal that’s similar but not identical to the one it reached with the Washington-based agency in 2016. Local media reports have said Egypt was asking for $2.7bn under the RFI programme and that the IMF board will look at Egypt’s request on May 11.

Details of how much Egypt will ask for under the second programme have not been released or what reforms, if any, Egypt will need to implement to secure a loan.

“It’s a difficult situation and it’s likely to stay with us until the end of the year or early in 2021,” said Abdel Qader Ramadan, chief economic editor at Masrawy, a leading online news site.

Updated: May 9, 2020 08:41 PM

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