IN EGYPT, six doctors and two pharmacists have been arrested, and medics transferred to quarantine hospitals for speaking out, said Amnesty International on Thursday.
A pregnant doctor was detained after her phone was used to report a coronavirus case, the rights group added.
‘The Egyptian authorities are handling the Covid-19 crisis with their usual repressive tactics,’ said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research and Advocacy Director.
The Egyptian authorities have been using charges of ‘terrorism’ and ‘spreading false news’ to arrest healthcare workers who have spoken out over safety concerns during the country’s Covid-19 crisis, said Amnesty.
Amnesty has documented the cases of eight healthcare workers – six doctors and two pharmacists – arbitrarily detained between March and June by Egypt’s notorious National Security Agency (NSA) for online and social media posts expressing their concerns.
The medics had denounced unsafe working conditions, shortages of personal protective equipment, insufficient infection control training, limited testing of healthcare workers, and lack of access to vital healthcare.
Amnesty has also spoken to seven doctors who overheard threats made against colleagues who complained on social media.
A source from Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate confirmed that doctors have been subjected to threats and interrogations by the NSA, and some health workers have expressed concerns for their safety after the threats.
Amnesty conducted 14 interviews with doctors, their relatives, lawyers and syndicate members. Some shared threatening voice messages received from hospital managers or local health officials.
In one message, a doctor who had refused to work because of unsafe conditions is called a ‘traitorous soldier’ who deserves to ‘suffer the most severe penalties’.
A letter signed by the North Sinai governor, seen by Amnesty, warns: ‘Any doctor or nurse who refuses to perform their work or is absent from work will be summoned by the National Security Agency.’
Sources from the Doctors Syndicate also told Amnesty that healthcare workers who speak out have been transferred to isolation hospitals where patients who have contracted Covid-19 are quarantined, or to hospitals in other governorates.
This is especially concerning for doctors with pre-existing medical conditions or older doctors who are at greater risk.
Pharmacists have also faced abuse and harassment for criticising the authorities.
In response to a complaint from eight pharmacists in relation to unsafe working conditions at Damanhour Medical National Institute, the hospital director transferred the eight to different governorates far from their homes and families.
The Doctors Syndicate has recorded the deaths of at least 68 frontline healthcare workers from Covid-19, with more than 400 testing positive for the virus since mid-February.
This does not include doctors who died with Covid-19 symptoms but were not tested, and also excludes the death toll among nurses, dentists, pharmacists, technicians, delivery workers, cleaning staff and other essential healthcare workers.
Philip Luther said: ‘Healthcare workers have to make an impossible choice: risk their lives or face prison if they dare to speak out.
‘Amnesty is calling on the Egyptian authorities to put an immediate end to their campaign of harassment and intimidation against healthcare workers who are speaking out.’
On 28 March, the National Security Agency arrested Alaa Shaaban Hamida, a 26-year-old doctor, at the El Shatby University Hospital in Alexandria where she works, after a nurse used her phone to report a case of coronavirus to the health ministry’s hotline. According to Alaa’s statement during the investigation, the hospital director reported her to the NSA for going over his head to the ministry.
NSA officers arrested Alaa Shaaban Hamida in the hospital director’s office. The doctor, who is pregnant, is currently held in pre-trial detention on charges of ‘membership in a terrorist group’, ‘spreading false news’, and ‘mis-using social media’.
On 10 April, security officers arrested an ophthalmologist, Hany Bakr, 36, at his home in Qalyubia, north of Cairo, for a Facebook post in which he criticised the government for sending medical aid to Italy and China.
On 27 May, a doctor was detained for writing an article criticising the government’s response to Covid-19, as well as structural shortcomings in Egypt’s health system.
According to his family, four security officers raided his home, confiscated his phone and laptop, and asked him if he attended the burial of Walid Yehia who died after contracting the virus.
On 14 June, Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate released a statement warning that such detentions were creating ‘frustration and fear among doctors’.
The Syndicate posted on its Facebook page:
‘The Doctors Union addressed the Attorney General’s office regarding the doctors arrested following the publication of their views regarding the corona pandemic, as complaints were received by the Union regarding this matter and demanded that the Union member be released quickly until their investigation is over, and a union representative is present during investigations as its inherent right.
‘A detailed statement was sent to the Attorney General’s Office on Sunday, 14/6/2020.’
Amnesty concluded that arrests for raising concerns about the health system in Egypt predate Covid-19. Last September, five doctors were arrested for launching the ‘Egypt’s doctors are angry’ campaign calling for reforms.
While four of the doctors were subsequently released, dentist Ahmad al-Daydamouny is still behind bars for views he expressed online about poor remuneration and working conditions.
Meanwhile, Egyptian doctors are massively concerned that during the pandemic, their numbers are being slashed by some seven thousand over a failure by the government to recognise newly qualified young doctors because a new system does not work.
The Doctors’ Union Facebook page post on the issue said: ‘Commissioning doctors are applying for a formal request to meet the Prime Minister to discuss their commissioning crisis.
‘Today, Thursday, June 18th, a delegation from the commissioned doctors to the Prime Minister’s office submitted a formal request to meet with the Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli until the issue of the commissioning movement is resolved, but the delegation has been informed that applications are currently limited to official authorities Only individual applications are faxed, so a request for an interview was faxed from the Headquarters of the General Association of Doctors.
‘The Doctors Union confirms that the problem can be resolved quickly once doctors have approved the reinstatement of the old system, which has been known for years, which informs the health system of new young doctors joining to provide medical care, and the union fears that the pace of applications for cancellation of assignments from doctors will increase, which is harmful to the health system and we lose important members the country needs at this critical time when we need all efforts.’
The letter to the Prime Minister reads as follows:
‘Mr Prime Minister,
‘Engineer Mustafa Madbouly,
‘We, the representatives of doctors, are commissioned March 2020 to request an urgent meeting to solve the commissioning crisis that does not hide from you.
‘In the past few months, seven thousand commissioned doctors suffer from the intransigence of the Ministry of Health and are outside the health system for months without serving their country and helping in these critical conditions
‘The Ministry of Health intends to continue to implement a system that has proved inapplicable for months, and we are mandated doctors.
‘We have sought to interact with ministry officials repeatedly and by opening the commissioning movement to reach a solution as soon as possible, which ensures the safety of our future and the health of the medical system; but all we have received is intransigence and seven thousand doctors are unrecognised at this critical time.
‘Prime Minister, we are in the process of this 65-day commissioning problem, and we are close to closing the grievances door on June 22, without any solution, threatening to remove thousands of doctors from working under the health system in Egypt.
‘Here we appeal to your presence quickly to take action to solve this problem, and to entrust this batch of doctors to the old system of assignment that has been recognised for years. We are ready to serve this country.’