In Egypt’s ancient city of Alexandria there is an area called Saba Banat (“Seven Girls”), a quarter associated with the arrival of seven religious sisters who, in 1844, established a new mission dedicated to their founder, St. Vincent de Paul. I am Sister Simone Abdel Malek, a Daughter of Charity, and I work within that mission that today includes a school, an orphanage, a dispensary and the sisters’ community.
Our modest 4,300-square-foot dispensary provides medical services to some 800 patients a day — and sometimes as many as 1,000. We serve those who live in such economic poverty they cannot afford the cost of medical services. Here, however, they have access to ophthalmology, physical therapy, dentistry, cardiology, pediatrics, orthopedics, dermatology, radiology, ultrasound examinations, laboratory testing and more. And thanks to CNEWA’s support, we have upgraded the dispensary’s dentistry and ear, nose and throat facilities, providing better care to our patients.
The coronavirus has arrived in Egypt, striking a fragile health care system and infecting a population already struggling to cope with a long-troubled economy. There is a shortage of doctors, nurses, drugs, medical supplies and beds, leaving the health care system ill-equipped to manage a fast-moving and highly lethal pandemic. Should COVID continue its rapid spread, we fear it will be only a matter of time before the health crisis becomes a political one as well.
Tens of thousands of poor families have been affected in Alexandria by the closing of all shops and markets, schools and universities. Losing their only source of income — especially among day laborers — has made it impossible for families to buy essential goods or pay their household expenses, such as electricity bills, water and gas, rent and even required medications. Government-imposed quarantines and curfews have curtailed access to necessary supplies — masks and disinfectants — which are difficult to find and expensive, too.
As we live through this nightmare, which we share with much of the whole world, we Daughters of Charity have come together to support those whose poverty deepens. We began distributing food packages to orphans, lonely elderly men and women, the ill, the unemployed, and more. We assisted in the distribution of food coupons to those families most in need, typically between 100 and 200 Egyptian pounds, or the equivalent of $6 to $12 U.S. dollars, for items such as bread, meat, fish or medicine not available in our pharmacy. Moreover, we issued medications for chronic illnesses, and even blankets to those who have none.
Throughout this pandemic, we have been preparing hot meals for all our employees, who for the purpose of precaution have been divided into two groups, each coming three days a week.
At the school, employees and teachers are being paid their full salaries, even if they no longer work full time at school; teachers come in groups according to classes, prepare their materials with the principal and the sisters and publish it on the school’s website. From time to time, teachers use social media to reach out to their students, providing instruction, counsel and hope. Unfortunately, many of our poor students do not have access to a computer or the web at home, so instead they come to the school in very small groups, where a teacher is always available to help them with their studies and homework.
Our community of sisters has intensified their hours of prayers for the salvation of the whole world. They pray for the departed who have succumbed to the virus and those people who continue their battle; for their loved ones who are quarantined, and thus separated from one another; and for those who are afraid and anxious, so God may give them the strength to overcome these hard times.
We have prepared many recreational sessions for the sisters in order to improve their state of mind, so they will respectively help and reassure others, and never lose sight of God’s will. We also send text messages through all social media platforms to our employees, friends and all those who need words of encouragement and reassurance.
Due to the situation, we have limited access to the dispensary — especially by our aged sisters — so as to prevent the spread of the virus. On the dispensary premises, only recently have we received someone who tested positive with the coronavirus. The 35-year-old-woman had only mild symptoms when our medical personnel administered the P.C.R. test. When we reviewed the results, we transferred her to a hospital immediately, as our dispensary lacks the preventive equipment and isolation rooms necessary to treat patients with the virus. Knowing the difficult financial position of her husband, who is also quarantined and following all protective measures related to COVID-19, the dispensary has covered all her medical expenses at the hospital, where she is recovering.
We, the Daughters of Charity, are following the words of God, giving our own personal goods to help the poor, no matter their faith. This social-distancing situation will help us be at our best when society begins to reopen — for ourselves, our families, our friends. Our joy and trust in the Lord in the midst of this pandemic will help show the path for doing the same in all our works. We all have our roles — we can show the love of God, our creator, by the way we live our lives. Thus, our role is to help people to see better, to trust more and to know peace where anxiety may be running out of control.