This week, for many, the coronavirus pandemic that has left much of the world paralyzed is hitting closer to home than ever. But for some of us, the scare is not just about our health or even the availability of essential food and hygiene products in our local stores. It is the crippling fear for our loved ones unjustly imprisoned halfway across the world.
On Tuesday, I woke up to news of the first covid-19 case in Wadi el-Natrun prison, where my father has been held as a political prisoner in Egypt since 2013. Ever since, I have struggled to imagine how Egypt’s prisoners, packed like sardines in unventilated underground dungeons, feel about the impending doom metastasizing in their midst. It sounds like a scene out of a horror movie, but this is the grim reality for an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt as a pandemic hangs over the world and creeps through their cell doors.
In the last two weeks, a letter was smuggled out of another prison claiming multiple cases of coronavirus-like symptoms. Yet, while some of the most repressive regimes in the region such as Iran, Bahrain and Jordan have released some prisoners to prevent a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, Egypt lags behind.
Even without the threat of a pandemic, Egypt’s prisons are known for their inhumane conditions. This year, my friend Mustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old Egyptian American auto-parts dealer from New York, died after undergoing a hunger strike to protest six years of unjust detainment. Mustafa was the only American to die in Egyptian prisons in recent history, but he was one of 678 Egyptians to suffer from medical negligence and die in prison in recent years.
I experienced this treatment firsthand. In 2013, I underwent impromptu surgery in Tora prison by an inmate doctor with no anesthesia or sterilization. The doctor used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel to remove two 13-inch metal nails that were placed in my left arm to support and repair the damage from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. For months after, I got little to no medical care despite multiple requests by the U.S. government.
I barely survived, but eventually, I was freed. Imagine the suffering of the tens of thousands of other Egyptians who are less fortunate, languishing in overcrowded prison cells with little air circulation. There are often as many as 20 prisoners living in each 200-square-foot cell, sharing one faucet and one hole in the ground as a toilet.
The prisoners are not the only vulnerable ones. Low-ranking guards and officers who use public transportation to get to the prisons could easily contract and transmit the virus among themselves and prisoners. The virus is not going to differentiate between prisoners and jailers, and neither group will likely get the medical attention needed to identify and contain the virus and save lives.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported “at least 60 cases in 15 U.S. states associated with multiple Nile River voyages in Egypt”, making Egypt a hotbed that exported the pandemic around the world. University of Toronto researchers estimated at least 6,000 coronavirus cases in Egypt, with the government reporting only 210.
Yet Egypt’s response has been exponentially slower than the likely spread of the virus. Instead of pushing for widespread testing and transparency, Egyptian authorities withdrew the press accreditation of a Guardian journalist who reported on the University of Toronto findings. With regard to prisons, the government has suspended visitations for 10 days, and arrested four women who protested the imminent danger to their loved ones in prison.
This pandemic is one of humanity’s most lethal enemies. And there is no path to its defeat without collective effort. This effort must include eliminating conditions where it can spread like wildfire. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi can save face and win much-needed political capital by doing the sensible and humane thing: decreasing prison capacity by releasing all vulnerable prisoners, such as the elderly, prisoners with underlying health complications and all pretrial detention prisoners. As Egypt prepares for a possible lockdown or curfew, this should be a priority before it is too late.
I cannot hide my debilitating fear for my unjustly imprisoned dad, who is 61 and high-risk because of his diabetes, hepatitis C, high blood pressure and six years of imprisonment. I fear for Ziyad El-Elimay, a young human rights defender and former member of parliament who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. I fear for the thousands of innocent souls who are forgotten and neglected, and for their families whose suffering was already too great to bear.
Let us not forget the most helpless across the world and in Egypt’s prisoners. Let us support and amplify the calls for their release. It is our collective responsibility to make sure those prisons — graveyards of the living — do not turn into graveyards of the dead.
Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and founder of the Freedom Initiative.