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Algeria / Authorities suspected of covering up true scale of Covid-19 contamination

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Amid reports of patients presenting Covid-19 symptoms being turned down by hospitals, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the army-appointed president of Algeria, has ordered the Minister of Communication to take all measures to “prohibit the dissemination of any statistics on the situation of Coronavirus cases across the country”.

He designated the Ministry of Health as “the only body empowered to do so in coordination with the Ministry of Communication.”

Shortly after, the Ministry of Health called for all officials under its supervision to refrain from making statements to the press concerning the situation of the new coronavirus.

The announcement comes amid accusations of incompetence by a number of journalists and doctors alike. Citing sources within hospitals and the ministry of health, Mohamed Sifaoui, among other investigative journalists, questioned the figures put forward by the Algerian authorities, as various hospital sources speak of thousands of cases and deaths intentionally being unreported as Covid-19 related. Some commentators have suggested multiplying the figures by at least 10 to have an accurate picture of the situation given the authorities’ history of publishing inconsistent information.

The military junta in control of the country, aware of the poor health infrastructure caused by decades of dilapidation of public funds, is now suspected of hiding the true scale of the contamination.

While most (Western) countries have been relatively transparent in these times of public health crisis, countries in the under-developed world run by despots, such as Algeria or Egypt, among others, have sought to keep a tight grip on the flow of information.

In Russia, for example, Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of a doctors’ trade union stated “I have a feeling they (the authorities) are lying to us” in light of the country’s statistics agency reporting a spike of 37% (year-on-year) in cases of pneumonia.

The highest death rate in the world

At the time of the writing of the article, the Algerian official figures stood at 201 cases tested positive and 15 deaths, putting the death rate at 8.46%. In previous figures, the death rate stood at more than 10%.

Given the mortality rates in other countries, the figures put forward by the Algerian authorities have raised suspicion in particular given the poor infrastructure and the inconsistencies between what the authorities have been reporting and what health professionals in the ground are experiencing. Nurses and doctors took to social media to request assistance from the population, pleading for donations of medical masks in particular, but also gloves and soap. The authorities had stated that there was 15 million masks, 2500 beds, and over 3,000 medical ventilators in stock. They had also stated that all hospitals had abundant stocks of the medical supplies and equipment needed to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Figures described as “pure fantasy” by one of several doctors working at the Frantz Fanon University Hospital who spoke to the Algiers Herald.

A tale of reckless incompetence

On the 2nd of March, Air Algérie, the country’s state-owned airline resumed its flights to and from China after briefly suspending these. The passengers of a repatriation flight from Wuhan weren’t subjected to any quarantine measures despite the contamination threat, passengers of subsequent flights including those carrying Chinese nationals travelling to Algeria were never quarantined either. Algeria also kept operating flights to and from countries struggling with the Covid-19 outbreak, like Italy, Spain or France, up until a few days ago.

Initially, the Algerian authorities sought to instrumentalise Covid-19, when they demonised the pro-democracy demonstrators who have been demanding radical change for over a year, demonstrators who refuse to accept a corrupt, army-appointed president. According to a video that went viral on social media, to intimidate the activists, the authorities went as far as intentionally seeking to contaminate healthy individuals, arresting and driving the demonstrators to a hospital where coronavirus patients were being treated without any protective gear, only to release them later during the day in the city centre.

A source at the U.S Embassy in Algiers, who recently spoke to our reporter under the condition of anonymity, told of how U.S officials and other allied countries representations have privately expressed scepticism in regards to the numbers reported by the Algerian authorities.

More on this developing story as soon as we gather more information.