In Egypt, A Scramble To Keep Factory Workers Safe

From schedule changes and face shields to full operational shutdowns, the pandemic has directly impacted the country's industrial sector.

Workers in a factory that produces face masks in Monufia, Egypt,
Workers in a factory that produces face masks in Monufia, Egypt,
Mostafa Mohie

10TH OF RAMADAN CITY — As the novel coronavirus makes its way through Egypt, some factories — including a La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow) processed cheese plant in 10th of Ramadan City — have had to temporarily shut down. Others managed to stay open, but have had to quickly adopt safety protocols, some more stringent than others.

In addition to the La Vache Qui Rit plant, operated by by Bel Egypt, other closures include a Nestle plant in 6th of October City, two Lecico ceramics factories in Alexandria's Borg al-Arab, a Samsung plant in Beni Suef, a food manufacturing plant at Quwaysna's industrial zone in Monufiya and a ready-to-wear clothing factory in the village of Hayatem in Mahalla.

In late April, the labor minister announced that his ministry had inspected more than 4,400 facilities between March 30 and April 28 and said it had reviewed protective measures to shield employees from the spread of coronavirus at the workplace.

Mada Masr spoke with workers from three separate factories in 10th of Ramadan City, Obour and Port Said to understand what steps each had taken to deal with the pandemic. The approaches vary widely across the different workplaces, from a bare minimum of protective measures to detailed plans of procedure.

"At first, they were cautious about taking any decisions related to suspending work at the factory. There was a general view that there was no need to take any extraordinary measures," says Shams,* a chemist at a food processing company in 10th of Ramadan City.

But that changed when the prime minister announced a nationwide curfew would be put in place on March 25. At that point, according to Shams, management felt the situation had become serious and decided to shut down for a week to assess the situation.

Mahmoud* tells a similar story about the metallurgical company he works for in Obour City, which also shut down for 10 days after the curfew was announced. "Everyone was afraid, workers and business owners," Mahmoud says. "Also, the market had come to a halt since mid-March so there was no longer a need to keep working."

The initial anxiety and worry prompted by the announcement of the curfew and closure of public spaces dissipated within a week.

The initial anxiety and uncertainty soon subsided. A week into the curfew, many factory schedules were reorganized to accommodate the new hours and people were back at work. The food processing company, which employs about 1,200 workers, started using an alternating system with a team working for a 24-hour shift, including a four-hour break. They would then take off for 48 hours while two other shifts were on rotation.

The metallurgical company, which employs about 100 workers, also put in place an alternating shift system, with one team working eight-hour shifts while a second team works 16-hour shifts to avoid moving after curfew. The teams switch the shift hours each week. The food processing company eventually returned to its regular system of three shifts per day after factory buses were exempt from curfew while the metallurgical company continued with its alternating shift system.

Shams says the food processing company took a number of protective steps for its workers. "The factory is disinfected daily and (has) enough alcohol and masks to last a month at least," he says. "At first, we'd give factory workers two masks per day — one to wear throughout the shift and until they get home, and another to wear on their way to the factory in the morning. Yet as masks became more difficult to come by, we started distributing just one mask for a temporary period until supplies became available."

The factory requires workers to wear their masks as soon as they set foot on the company bus and encourages them to continue wearing the masks until they get home. Later, management started to give out transparent face shields and alcohol containers. Workers also have their temperatures taken before they enter the factory. Some have been sent home with a high temperature and management has followed up on their health by phone.Regarding physical distance between workers within the factory, Shams says that the packaging department is most at risk because workers there are seated close together, facing each other in rows. The workspace was eventually modified to include plastic dividers between workers.

Shams works in the quality control department, a position that keeps him informed about infection control measures within the factory. He says that management encourages workers to report any symptoms without worrying about the consequences. They assure workers they will get paid sick leave, including in cases of COVID-19 infection, for however long is necessary.


Inside a joint Egypt-China plant in the free industrial zone of Cairo, producing up to 750,000 medical face masks per day. — Photo: Wu Huiwo/Xinhua/ZUMA.

The food processing plant operates around 40 bus routes to transport its 1,200 workers from various locations in Cairo and Sharqiya. Shams explains that a single bus route can pass by more than seven villages in Sharqiya, each of which is home to workers employed in different areas. If any one of them contracted the coronavirus it could lead to the spread of COVID-19 across a wide geographical area. When a case emerged in a Sharqiya village where two of the company's workers live, management decided to give them two days off until it confirmed they lived far away from the infected patient.

There are close to 3,000 factories in 10th of Ramadan City, where half a million workers are employed. About 60 out of Sharqiya's 278 coronavirus patients work in factories.

The company is also taking these measures to protect its reputation and brand as a food processor. "News of a positive case inside Bel Egypt was a wake-up call for us because of the damage we sustained as a result," Shams says. "Our company's management met afterwards to stress the importance of strengthening protective measures."

By contrast, the metallurgical company in Obour where Mahmoud works implemented less rigid protective measures. The initial anxiety and worry prompted by the announcement of the curfew and closure of public spaces dissipated within a week.

"People became less fearful," Mahmoud says. "The leniency with which the curfew was implemented and the limited number of reported cases at the time bolstered the idea that it's not all that dangerous, that it doesn't warrant all this fear."

Mahmoud says that the company does not supply its employees with masks and does not take the workers' temperatures as they enter the factory.

Management does encourage workers to report any symptoms and has assured employees that they will receive sick pay. At the beginning of the outbreak, the company also gave older workers the option of coming to work or staying at home while continuing to receive a portion of their salaries. Older workers ended up returning after a short break.

Mahmoud says the nature of the work in the factory does require workers to be in close proximity to one another, particularly after the company reorganized work schedules into alternating shifts. Each work detail is now composed of no more than 35 workers and the company regularly disinfects the workspace every two days. It is also looking into buying a sterilization booth to spray workers with disinfectant before they enter the factory.

"Management is not interested in pressing workers unless there's an inspection."

Meanwhile, a petrochemical company in Port Said that employs 1,500 workers has left the decision to take precautionary measures up to the workers. Ismail,* a worker at the plant, says the workspace is disinfected around every two days and the company supplies masks and alcohol to workers.

"In the beginning, there was a focus on the need to follow instructions, but things relaxed with time and it became the individual responsibility of workers," Ismail says.

The company posted guidelines around the factory on how to use personal protective equipment, which it supplies, and how to practice social distancing as well as information on how the virus spreads. Yet it does not monitor whether workers are implementing these measures.

"Management is not interested in pressing workers unless there's an inspection," Ismail says. "Other than that, it supplies protective equipment to those who want it and care about protecting themselves."

*Names of sources have been changed to protect their identities.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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