Apart Yet So Close – A report on Cairo’s Pandemic Experience
Dina Nageeb is an Architect & Research enthusiast in the field of sustainable urban development. After completing her BSc in Architectural Engineering at Cairo University in 2018, she worked on many development programs and became a LEED Green Associate at the U.S. Green Building Council. She is also a former writer at IEEE CUSB magazine.
You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Coronavirus outbreak has had an impact on cities and populations all over the world. Although the virus itself is only a tiny, invisible thing, it has set a challenge for humanity: public spaces in cities have become empty, airports are closed, prayers have been cancelled and people are told to stay home for the first time in our lifetime. As cities are not meant to only satisfy basic human needs but provide crucial physical and social environments for human interaction, the changes the virus has brought to urban spaces have left stark impressions on their inhabitants and vice versa. Our daily habits influence our lives, and the way we act and interact reforms our built environment. It is the first time for most of earth’s inhabitants to experience a pandemic. And their social reality has changed a lot, as it has become so difficult to maintain a normal routine, especially for people with chronic diseases or disorders. People experience unsteady waves of feelings and emotions: hope, despair, happiness, and sadness – things have become uprooted and uncertain. In response, people have created their own physical and virtual landscapes in order to keep afloat during the pandemic. These changes in social realities affect the cities we live in. In this post, I would like to take you on a journey to explore the socio-spatial effects of COVID-19 on Egyptian cities during the lockdown.
As Egypt’s capital city, Cairo concentrates much of the country’s political and economic activities. Intense migration has, moreover, contributed to overpopulation, complicating calls for social distancing in some of the city’s over-crowded spaces. All these features contrast with COVID-19 measures. “Lockdown”, “quarantine”, “social-distancing” and “self-isolation” are all new words to us. Instead of spending time at work, the park, or the gym etc., you have to spend it at home and do all your activities there. So what does the country look like during the pandemic? How to spend this whole time at home? Let’s see.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, a famous hashtag spread on Social Media: “ #Stay_Home”. Whenever you looked at your phone, you saw “stay home” written next to your cellular network information, and when you switched on the television, you found TV channels had changed logos to promote social distancing. Some people panicked: We witnessed supermarkets full of people trying to store goods and groceries, drug stores running out of alcohol, hygienic tools, medicines and face masks, and meetings taking place everywhere to decide what to do in the coming months.
Streets, homes – every part of the city is changing. Banks, government offices and supermarkets are applying social distancing regulations by demarcating marks on the floor and creating waiting areas in the streets with social distancing measures in place. Transportation systems have had a significant change, too. Instead of using public transportation, many people used their own cars or carpooled together and others started to ride bikes. Prayers are prohibited in mosques and churches for the first time in our lives! Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is known for being “a city of thousand minarets”, imagine these minarets no longer raise prayers. Kids are more open to playing in the streets as Egypt lacks green areas and open space, and it is safe during quarantine because streets are empty and car free. Air quality has definitely become better! Kites have spread in Egypt’s sky, which has created a unique identity for the country during the pandemic, as people took to flying kites above roofs and bridges, and these bridges became the new open space for people to play and gather while other public spaces were closed. Another form of outings are car outings. People used streets and compounds to park their cars next to each other so they could talk, eat, and enjoy time together in compliance with social distancing measures. They thereby compensated the city’s lack of open spaces, creating their own social space with their cars.
For many Muslim families, Ramadan is one of the most social months of the year. “During Ramadan,” as Daniel Lombroso writes for The Atlantic, “Muslims come together to pray, fast, and celebrate the Quran. But what does it look like during a pandemic? This year, Ramadan is being observed in isolation—no mosque, no extended-family gatherings, and no traditional Eid celebration.” It is the month of mercy; Muslims break their fast when Maghrib prayer is called. During normal Ramadans, you will find people on the streets, distributing food, water and juices to commuters who are in the streets at prayer time, and you also find large tables laid out by fasting families in the streets – this represents a kind of social solidarity in which the rich prepare these tables for the poor. Another Ramadan vibe that has disappeared this year are “Ramadan nights celebrations”. These celebrations normally take place at cafés, open spaces, clubs and Ramadan tents during the night. During the pandemic, these Ramadan activities were effectively cancelled.
Another aspect affected by the lack of family gatherings during the lockdown are parking lots in streets. Most buildings in Egypt lack parking facilities. So people park their cars in the streets. Imagine a family gathering in an apartment building during Ramadan or a feast! It gets very crowded and people literally fight over parking spaces. During quarantine, fights decreased, and the crowds diminished as well. The emergence of field and temporary isolation hospitals was another remarkable part of the country’s efforts to control the spread of the virus, impacting the city’s landscape. They consist of tents made of chemically treated cloth. One was, for instance, set up in the Egyptian international exhibition centre to accommodate thousands of patients in a well-equipped campus with a helipad for flying medical paramedic services.
Social media and digitization had a great impact on people’s lives during the lockdown. When you opened Facebook or Instagram you found people either enjoying being at home or posting about people they knew who had become infected with the virus. During the first few weeks of lockdown, social media timelines were full of food recipes. Yes, finally Egyptians were at home enjoying a homemade meal instead of the ready-made/junk food we otherwise eat all the time. And people shared their meals with each other. Cooking was a trend in the age of corona.
Not to mention cooking without sports and regular exercise. Spending long periods of time at home affects our physical health and poses a challenge for staying physically active. As the WHO recommends: “[L]ow levels of physical activity can have negative effects on the health, well-being and quality of life of individuals. […] Physical activity and relaxation techniques can be valuable tools to help you remain calm and continue to protect your health during this time.” Almost all gym classes have moved online. Families are working out together and doing yoga together. Running and cycling in gated communities and compounds, too, have become more common.
Then, people started to use the internet in every aspect of their daily life. They created virtual societies on their social media platforms. Online shopping became more popular and replaced shopping trips to the store. As a way of overcoming stress and negativity, online shopping also provides excitement and relief for many people. You can easily access reviews for all products online and then buy what you need (or don’t need) with a click. Even grocery stores ventured into online selling.
Zoom meetings for work during daytime and online house party rooms to chill out with friends at night – this became routine for many of us. What about Tiktok? The video portal for lip-syncing music videos and other short video clips, which also offers additional social networking features, has been described as “the Social Media craze at the forefront of quarantine”. Dancing, acting, mimicking, hacks and tricks enable anyone to become their own performer and director. People compete to create more creative scenes and challenges. Although Tiktok was released in 2016 (then called Musical.ly), it became more famous and popular during the pandemic as a way to socialise, relieve stress, and kill boredom.
As mentioned, Ramadan vibes were different this year. The month of Ramadan has also become known as an important season for TV-series, in which actors race to release their new shows and achieve the highest ratings. But, during the pandemic, some of these Ramadan vibes were no longer available. Due to the pandemic, some shows were not completed, so they had to be shown after Ramadan on digital platforms like Netflix, Shahid and Watchit. So, this year these vibes were replaced by online hangouts and interactive hashtags on social media where people shared their daily Ramadan habits, provided criticism about Ramadan TV series, and shared the best scenes of each day’s episodes.
Online musical concerts and weddings have also become remarkable features during quarantine. Musicians organised concerts on their own; they used social media and hashtags to motivate their fans to write about these concerts and request concerts from their favourite singers. So, musicians performed live on Youtube or Instagram using hashtags like #TogetherAtHome to encourage people to interact with them. They also read comments and tracked requests during these live sessions, and people we shared these events and enjoyed themselves. The same goes for weddings: Getting married during the pandemic? Why not! The world adapts in so many ways, celebrating virtual weddings and having the greatest time. People expected these weddings to be cancelled, but, thanks to digital technology, the summer wedding season was on fire.
Last but not least, learning and schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic: E-learning and home-schooling have never been part of Egyptian culture, though they are trendy abroad. COVID-19 has caused a hectic time for teachers, parents, and students alike, as schools and universities were suddenly shut down with no plans for the rest of the academic year. Academic institutes started to make decisions about their curriculums: theoretical and practical ones, fees, testing and grading. Teachers and professors prepared the content of their online sessions, parents had to reschedule their daily routine to adjust to the new learning methods as their children were not used to them, and, finally, students tried to adapt to not going to school/university and took the first online exams of their lives. It was hard to manage at the beginning, but most students passed their exams and graduated to the next level. We witnessed senior students discussing their final thesis or graduation projects online, and the remote learning experience was stressful but entertaining.
This is an extraordinary moment. We are constructing a new reality that has never come to our minds before. Citizens have realized the responsibility we bear towards each other; we have to support each other and help each other as well. It becomes easier every day through modern technology to have a great impact with only a small action. Digitization has helped people spread their need for a hospital bed, a ventilator, masks, protection and medical kits. People interact and help each other. Via internet banking, NGO websites, mobile money transfers and similar services, you can make donations with just a click, helping other human beings in places far away from the place you are in.
We abuse the term “social distancing” as humans are social beings who cannot be socially disconnected. In order to be well and to maintain our mental and physical health, we need to interact with each other. Human interaction was disrupted due to isolation during the pandemic, but it caused a “physical distancing” among people, not a social one as people stayed informed and connected through the physical/virtual landscapes they created. These insight into the Egyptian experience have shown that there has been a huge socio-spatial change as many actions and events took place virtually through the internet: online shopping, e-schooling, online concerts, gym classes and so many more. Some practices disappeared, however, as they required physical communication and proximity, such as Ramadan tables and people distributing food during Maghrib prayers. Other, new practices emerged or intensified during the pandemic – flying kites for example. It is this new reality that this blogpost highlights: a new social reality has been created, with a culture that adapts to new human habits and the situation worldwide. At the end of this post, I’d like you to share your opinions. Kindly send me your responses[PM1] : what were your daily social habits before the COVID-19? How do they affect the city you live in? And how have they changed? Do you wish to continue your new routine even after the COVID-19 age? It would be interesting to hear your opinions and experience during the pandemic.
 Lombroso, D. (2020). Ramadan in Quarantine. In: The Atlantic, May 19th, 2020. (Online at: https://www.theatlantic.com/video/archive/2020/05/ramadan-quarantine/611818/)
 World Health Organization (2020). Stay physically active during self-quarantine. (Online at: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/technical-guidance/stay-physically-active-during-self-quarantine)
 Iovine, A. (2020). Are you online shopping a lot during quarantine? Here are some of the psychological reasons why. (Online at: https://mashable.com/article/online-shopping-during-coronavirus-quarantine/)
 Aravanis, M. (2020). TikTok: The Social Media Craze at the ForeFront of Quarantine. (Online at: https://egyptianstreets.com/2020/05/03/tiktok-the-social-media-craze-at-the-forefront-of-quarantine/)
 See for instance: Allen, H., Ling, B. & W. Burton (2020). Social Distancing’ — Start Talking About ‘Physical Distancing, Social Connection. (Online at: https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200424.213070/full/); Anderson, J. (2020) Social distancing isn’t the right language for what Covid-19 asks of us. (Online at: https://qz.com/1830347/social-distancing-isnt-the-right-language-for-what-covid-19-asks-of-us/); Gürsöz, A. (2020). What does solidarity look like in times of coronavirus? (Online at: https://www.efc.be/blog-post/what-does-solidarity-look-like-in-times-of-coronavirus/)