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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Stranded in Egypt (again) and the Story of the Wuhan Corona Virus

For only the second time in a decade, we found ourselves stranded in Egypt with no easy way out.

Last time, in 2011, we were observers at the Egyptian revolution overthrowing the thirty-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak.  (See blog posts beginning here.)

This time is was the Corona virus.

It is easy to lose track of how quickly things have changed in the world in the past three months.  We arrived in Cairo on January 7th for our annual 12-week escape from the Minnesota winter.  I suppose we might have noted this January 5 article from the Associated Press printed in many U.S. newspapers:

It describes a "mysterious infectious" viral pneumonia that had infected five Hong Kong residents who had visited the mainland China city of Wuhan - where another 44 people had been detected with the disease.

We had friends who would be arriving in Cairo in about ten days and we would join them for a Nile Cruise tour in the south of Egypt where we would visit the famous royal tombs at the Valley of the Kings.

On January 19, we visited the pyramids with our newly arrived friends.  Much later, when scanning some  news stories, I was struck by a photo of two of the first Americans to become infected while in Egypt.  The Palo Alto couple were sitting in about the same spot as we had been.  They became infected with the virus on a similar Nile Cruise.

Of course, almost all tourists stop and pose for a picture at the "Panorama" with the pyramids in the background.  I suppose that these seating spots are part of what is referred to when we hear that Egypt is sanitizing the pyramids.

Meanwhile, literally thousands of Chinese visitors streamed through the Golden Eagle Papyrus shop just down the block from our Cairo condo.  We and our guests also visited that papyrus shop on Jan 19.  The Chinese have been big contributors to the world tourist economy over the past ten years.  There are now over 150 million Chinese people traveling annually.  Egypt gets a good share.

It was not until January 21st that that the first Corona virus case was recorded in the U.S. - a man who had traveled to Wuhan, China.  On the next day, China internally cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan.

Egypt became sensitive to the virus threat and on January 26 banned all flights from China.

On January 30, we toured the Gayer Anderson Museum in Cairo with our friends.

I took that picture while we were waiting to begin our tour of the Gayer Anderson Museum.  We were waiting patiently as a group of Chinese tourists moved ahead of us.  We had been held back by the local guides, most of whom wanted to be very separated from that group.  I thought they were being overcautious, but it was the first time I had any real concern about this strange new virus.

On the next day, January 31, President Trump issued a China travel ban.

Egypt confirmed its first case of the Corona virus on February 14.

On Monday, March 16th, Egypt banned all flights in and out of Egyptian airports as of noon on Thursday March 19.  We would be staying longer than expected - we had been booked on a return flight scheduled for March 31.

A rapid process of shutdown, isolation and eventually, curfew began.

On March 21st, both the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Egypt's Orthodox Christian Church announced the halt of communal prayers and services.  The call to prayer heard five times a day throughout Egypt no longer ended with a call to come to the mosque.  Instead, it concluded with warnings to stay at home and take precautions in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Wedding reception venues closed.  A few weddings were still held - we attended one on the 23rd - but they were required to conclude by 7:00 p.m.  At the one we attended, a platoon of army personnel rolled up in armored personnel carriers at 7:00 to insure that everyone left!

A general curfew was proclaimed and enforced.

The traffic on the streets and the Ring Road disappeared at night - albeit not precisely at 7:00 P.M.

Protective measures were instituted and taken seriously.  "Elbow bumps" and "ankle taps" were in ample supply at that wedding we attended on the 23rd - although plenty of handshakes and kisses were still much in evidence.

Protective disposable gloves were supplied at the supermarket; even the shelf stockers were all wearing them.  A customer fishing cash out to hand the cashier who then counted it while also gloved was quite clumsy the first time through.

Even the sellers at the nearby "green grocer" were soon wearing masks and gloves.

People waiting in line at the ATMs were also masking up  -  even if not maintaining much social distance.

As the fifteen-day curfew and flight bans lengthened, Linda worked the phones and reservation systems to see when we might be able to get home.  April 27th was the earliest that Delta would schedule us.  That flight would go through both Italy and JFK in New York - we were not pleased with that routing.

Four more weeks in Egypt, maybe longer?  At least we had a place to stay.  And sympathetic friends were bringing us great home cooking.
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Linda also had signed us up for the State Department's STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program).  This proved fortunate.  It turned out that the U.S. Embassy was able to set up three commercial flights via Egypt Air that would go directly from Cairo to Washington D.C.  We now had an exit option.  But should we take it?

The coronavirus statistics for Egypt looked a lot better than for the United States.

We decided to leave.  We reserved seats on the April 3 Egypt Air flight.  Our friends across the hall were concerned and brought us the perfect "going away" gift - gloves and masks.


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Päivi and Santeri Kannisto said...

You look like travelling surgeons with all the protective gear. It must have been a truly mass hysteric experience. Luckily we haven't had to travel yet and get a taste of all that expensive and polluting non-sense.