What is Happening to Egypt’s Health System

Reliable information from Egypt is hard to come by as pro-democracy protests trigger widespread clashes across the country. Yesterday, Egypt’s Minister of Health, Ahmed Samih Farid, claimed five people have died in the violence in Cairo and over 800 wounded. After the violence from last night, which included reports of gunshot wounds, that number is undoubtedly higher today.

The center of the protest movement is Cairo’s Tahrir Square. To provide medical care, protesters have setup a makeshift field hospital in the nearby Abdel Rahman Mosque, which was described in The New Yorker as: “really just an alleyway between storefronts on Al Bustan street, a side street with a couple of tea stalls and a now boarded-up McDonald’s on the corner”. The field hospital is staffed a variety of doctors and other health workers from the city’s health system. Pictures of the hospital have also appeared online. According to one person calling into Al Jazeera, the hospital was not established due to severity of the injuries, but rather because protesters do not feel safe sending their wounded out of the protester controlled area. This worry is not without merit, one CNN journalist reported last night that a doctor claimed that government agents in civilian clothes were outside the hospital and the staff had to hide medics to get them to the protest areas. The field hospital has also helped treat patients unable to reach hospitals because ambulance services were slowed by Army checkpoints and crowds.

Away from the protests the situation is similarly dire. With little to no police presence in many areas, the health system is vulnerable to ransacking and looting. Residents of one Cairo neighborhood organized a posse to protect a local pediatric cancer hospital from a group of armed men. Violence and checkpoints on the street also appears to be deter some health workers from working out of fear of their personal security. While much of the press coverage is focused on the health of the protesters, it is the stories from other areas that should give us pause. They show an Egyptian health system which is at best stretched to its limits, and at worst teetering on the brink. The is a real risk that all Egyptian citizens will face long term reductions in health access, even those individuals uninvolved in the protests.