CAIRO (Reuters) - At dusk on April 10, police entered an apartment in Qalyubia province, north of Cairo, and arrested ophthalmologist Hany Bakr.
The reason, his lawyer Aisha Nabil said, was an April 4 Facebook post in which he criticised Egypt for sending medical masks to China and Italy when he could not source them for his own practice.
Bakr, 36, who is still detained, is one of at least three doctors arrested during the new coronavirus outbreak on accusations of spreading false news, misusing social media, and joining a “terrorist organization” - a charge that refers to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and is often used in political cases - according to their lawyers.
All were arrested after speaking out over a lack of protective equipment or calling for better infection control measures, the lawyers said.
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, did not respond to a request for comment on the arrest of Bakr or the other doctors.
Authorities deny pressure on medical staff and say the government has managed the pandemic well.
Egypt has reported 19,666 cases of the coronavirus, including 816 deaths. Daily increases of confirmed cases have risen, though numbers are still far below Iran and Turkey, the hardest hit countries in the region.
When the government, which has boosted health sector spending and offered public health workers bonuses, imposed a curfew and shut down schools, mosques and hotels in March, some doctors praised the response.
But as infections accelerated, including among medical staff, some questioned official claims the pandemic was under control. Nine doctors, lawyers and rights activists interviewed by Reuters saw a wider campaign to censor coverage of the outbreak that builds on a far-reaching crackdown on dissent under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
In response to written questions from Reuters about complaints from doctors and reports of suppression of information, the state press centre said Egypt was “one of the most successful countries in dealing with coronavirus”. It did not elaborate.
About 11% of those infected in Egypt are healthcare workers, according to the World Health Organization, including 124 doctors, according to a May 17 report.
By Monday, Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate, a national association of medics, had recorded 350 cases among physicians, including 19 deaths.
The Health Ministry said on Monday that protective measures were in place and medical staff nationally had received more than 19,500 tests, including nearly 9,000 Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to detect those currently infected.
It said 291 health workers, including 69 doctors, had been treated in hospitals, and 11 had died.
But as the virus has spread some doctors in the public health system have expressed growing concern, saying they haven’t been equipped to combat it.
At Cairo’s Al Monira hospital, the Health Ministry said in a statement on Monday it had ordered an investigation into the death of Walid Yehiya, a young doctor who contracted the novel coronavirus, after his colleagues threatened to resign en masse citing reasons including a lack of preparedness and protection measures at the hospital, low pay, and administrative and security threats.
At the city’s Manshyet al-Bakry hospital, staff who sought tests when 23 colleagues tested positive after the hospital began to receive suspected COVID-19 cases in mid-May were unable to obtain them, said Mohamed Moqbal, a gastroenterologist at the hospital and Doctors Syndicate board member.
When doctors at the hospital decided to halt work to press for PCR tests, protective gear and training, hospital management threatened to report them to national security, he said. Officials at the hospital were not immediately available for comment.
The Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Mohamed Tag El-Din, a presidential health adviser, told reporters that official infection figures were accurate, denying there was pressure on doctors. Reprisals were “not allowed” and complaints would be addressed, he said.
But the government has moved to stifle criticism, the sources said. A Health Ministry notice sent to hospitals in Beheira province and shared with Reuters by an activist who declined to be identified, warned health workers that if they leaked information about coronavirus they would be “subjected to legal questioning”.
Doctors in three other provinces told Reuters they had seen similar warnings.
One doctor from Dakahlia province who asked not to be named said he was questioned by the Health Ministry’s legal committee in the province for accusing the ministry of lacking transparency on Facebook. “The state wants to lower the number of registered deaths,” he said.
The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about a Dakahlia doctor who was questioned by the ministry’s legal committee in the province for criticizing it on Facebook.
On state media, doctors who have criticized the government’s coronavirus figures or success in combatting the virus, have been accused of Muslim Brotherhood links. At least 500 people including activists and lawyers, and 11 journalists, have been arrested, said Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights.
“They don’t want anyone to report anything other than the official statements,” Eid said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the arrests.
Editing by Giles Elgood