Egyptian Billionaire Naguib Sawiris Draws Criticism Over Calls to Reopen the Economy Despite COVID-19 Pandemic

Egyptian Billionaire Naguib Sawiris Draws Criticism Over Calls to Reopen the Economy Despite COVID-19 Pandemic

Egyptian billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris raised eyebrows earlier this week after making controversial statements during a telephone interview with TV presenter Lamis El Hadidy, which aired on her program Al Qahira Al Aan (Cairo Now) on the Al Hadath network.

The famed billionaire echoed calls to reopen the Egyptian economy and lift the curfew recently imposed by the Egyptian government to contain the spread of coronavirus. During the interview, Sawiris claimed that the mortality rate among covid-19 patients “doesn’t go above 1 percent and 90 percent of those are senior citizens,” but he was swiftly corrected by Hadidy, who pointed out that 6 percent of reported coronavirus carriers in Egypt have died.

During the interview, Sawiris defended his position saying that people will lose their jobs and defended the private sector for laying off employees or docking their salaries, saying they would go out of business if they didn’t.

The billionaire’s most controversial comments came later on in the segment when he suggested workers be quarantined in factories. “There is another proposal that factory workers spend the night and live there and not go home to their families—they would be living and working there,” he said, explaining that reducing movement would be an added benefit.

When asked about the impact of Egypt’s partial lockdown on him, Sawiris said: “I don’t let my children meet their friends and I don’t meet anyone either,” adding that he maintained a social distance of four meters while working, and that the majority of his employees are working from home. He then stated that half his assets were invested in gold and that he predicted a rise in gold prices due to anticipated shortages, comparing it to “catastrophe insurance.”

He then reiterated his call for a rollback on the government-imposed partial lockdown. “If they prolong it any further, I will personally commit suicide,” he said. “It is unbelievable, we can’t see our friends, they tell me don’t go see your dad and mom lest you infect them, I tell them if I don’t go to my parents, they could commit suicide themselves. They are alone—if they spend two days without seeing anyone, at their age, it doesn’t work.”

Many bloggers and commentators accused the billionaire of cognitive dissonance for proposing that workers be isolated in factories and pointed out that he was enforcing the partial lockdown at home to protect his own family, while some called his comments tone-deaf and that his suicide remarks were irresponsible and histrionic. Other social media users, however, defended his position and echoed his calls to reopen the country’s economy.

One social media user called on the government to impose a 10 percent wealth tax on individuals worth EGP 10 million or more to fund the country’s healthcare and education budgets. Leftist activist and blogger Hossam El Hamalawi also weighed in, tweeting that any “capitalist” who supports Sawiris’ idea to lock up workers in factories should lead by example “and lock him/herself up with them.”

The billionaire’s comments come after a slew of similar public positions by thought leaders and politicians from across the world, most notably by US President Donald Trump who stated that he planned to reopen the economy “by Easter,” and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson whose initial response was the now infamous herd immunity plan to manage the pandemic.

Both positions were rebuffed by experts and scientists who cautioned that these policies would raise pressure on the UK and US’s healthcare sectors, prompting Trump and Jonson to back down. Experts have argued that removing movement restrictions would spread the disease further and translate to higher numbers of coronavirus patients in need of medical attention they would be highly unlikely to receive if the healthcare system is overwhelmed.

Many even warned that, if enacted, these public health policies would lead to the death of millions of people and stressed that the only way to manage the crisis is to slow the spread of the virus to keep the healthcare system from collapsing by maintaining social distancing, self-isolating in the event of infection and staying at home as much as possible.

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