CAIRO, Egypt — The H1N1 virus was causing global panic, nobody knew how severe the epidemic would be and governments were scrambling to respond. That was the situation this past May as this reporter, along with fellow travelers from a British Airways flight, was trying to navigate Cairo’s airport.
Health officials in Cairo had set up makeshift stands in front of the immigration booths, ordering each traveler to take a temperature test via ear thermometer.
The test was, one might say, less than sanitary. To the alarm of many aboard my flight, the officials took each person’s temperature, quickly wiping the thermometer’s earpiece with a tissue before administering the test to the next person.
Some passengers protested, but most subjected themselves to the exam, eager to move the process along and head to passport control.
While the airport has since sanitized the process, the ear thermometer incident served as an early indicator that Egypt’s response to the virus would be swift, if sometimes irrational.
Since then, the Egyptian government has enacted a series of dramatic measures to contain H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, which has afflicted upwards of 1,400 people and caused six deaths in the country.
But in a country rife with deep cultural schisms, a handful of the policies aimed at combating the virus have led to criticism that the government is using the disease to push a social agenda.
Every year, millions of Egyptians take to the streets in cities and towns throughout the country to celebrate moulids, ancient Sufi festivals commemorating patron saints.
Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, has long been viewed with skepticism among many in the religious leadership here, and the celebration of saints is strictly forbidden in Sunni Islam.
The government canceled all the 2009 moulids earlier this year, saying that such dense gatherings of people could allow H1N1 to more easily spread.
Some, though, wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the government’s moulid ban.
“The Egyptian government hates the moulids,” said Stephanie Boyle, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, who studies the intersection between the moulids and public health.
Calling the moulids an “uncontrollable space,” Boyle argued that the government sees the festivals as places of potentially dangerous political discussion and un-Islamic behavior.
Even as the government has publicly banned the moulids, security forces watch as Egyptians gather anyways, commemorating each occasion with none of the tents and stages that typically accompany such celebrations. In other words, it hasn’t closed the moulids completely, instead choosing to discourage attendance.
The government’s actions, said Boyle, are odd, given that millions of Egyptians congregate every day anyway in the streets and markets of the capital.
“The Egyptian government, which often has very strong tactics,” said Boyle, “when it comes to the moulid, it uses kid gloves because the moulids are very important to the Egyptian people.”
This isn’t the first time that the government has used health concerns to close down the moulids, said Boyle, noting that officials canceled moulids several times in the 19th century to combat cholera epidemics.
Rebutting claims that the government may have a political motive behind canceling the moulds, Ministry of Health spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shaheen said that the moulids do pose a serious health risk in the age of H1N1.
“If you have 5 million people rotating in an area for five or 10 days,” he said, “you have a massive exposure.”
Banning the moulids, though, is not the only arena in which critics have slammed the government for using H1N1 to push a social agenda.
Earlier this year, the government announced that it would slaughter the country’s entire pig population, dealing a blow to Egypt’s 10 percent Christian population.
Pigs are viewed as unclean under Islam, and many Muslims in Egypt continue to view the animal with disgust.
“There is also no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products,” the World Health Organization said in an April 28 statement.
Even U.S. President Barack Obama has been careful not to refer to the virus by its common moniker, swine flu, as part of an effort to distance the disease from the pork industry.
Despite the science, Egypt has now completed its pig cull, leaving some Christian communities in economic disarray.
In the face of claims that the mass slaughter was a hasty, exaggerated move targeting the country’s Christians, the government continues to stand by its actions.
“It was not a simple decision. It was a painful decision,” said Shaheen. “Some people view this as a form of discrimination because the pigs are eaten by Christians. But I will tell you that under bird flu, the decision was made to kill millions of chickens,” which affected both Christians and Muslims.
Many Egyptians still remain distrustful. After rumors circulated that government-issued vaccines would be used to infect, rather than aid, the population, the minister of health received the vaccine in a public setting, in front of the Egyptian media, to quell fears.
When that failed to quash the rumblings, a handful of the minister’s aides also publicly received injections. This time, though, they did it in the offices of one of the country’s leading religious authorities, hoping the Sheikh’s presence would add credibility to the affair.
“This has something to do with trust,” Shaheen said. “It’s an accumulated issue that they don’t trust what the government says.”