Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Daily commuters in Egypt during the Covid-19 pandemic

In an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19, Egypt’s government has implemented social distancing measures that have a particularly direct impact on daily commuters and other mobile workers. This column examines both the health risks and the economic risks facing these individuals, their families and their local communities.

In a nutshell

Moving from one place to another for a job is the only source of income for many families in Egypt: the restrictions of curfew and lockdowns could therefore push them into further poverty, putting their survival at risk.

Commuters are at the highest risk of spreading the virus among their local communities; the overcrowded nature of many forms of transport is posing great health risks to workers and their families.

The struggle remains between the economic survival of the families of the commuters and the health survival of the individuals, their families and their surrounding communities.

The functioning of the Egyptian labour market depends not only on the size of the labour force, but also its distribution. Migration in Egypt – both internal and international – is a survival strategy. Yet despite high regional inequality, the internal migration and mobility of Egyptians is low. Inter-regional commuting has recently been substituting for the low rate of inter-regional and sub-regional migration.

Numerous economic and non-economic factors influence the decision to migrate, including the individual characteristics of migrants and of origin versus destination locations. These factors can also help to explain the mobility of workers in Egypt.

Although the geographical distribution of Egypt’s population has remained stable over time, with an almost stable rate of urbanisation and a low rate of internal migration, adjustments in the labour market occur through the commuting and mobility of workers. Worker commuting/mobility has been a strong substitute for residential labour migration over the years.

Mobile workers typically originate from rural-lower Egypt; and Greater Cairo is the main common destination. Looking at the characteristics of the commuters, the younger and less educated are among the more mobile groups of workers in Egypt. A closer look reveals that the retail trade, manufacturing and construction have the most mobile workforce.

Commuting workers are mainly employed in the private informal sector or as informal workers in the private formal sector, with a third group being self-employed. These sectors give larger flexibility for workers to move between their residential locations and workplaces. The average wages of mobile workers are generally less than their counterparts.

Covid-19 and the internal migration and mobility of Egyptian workers

In an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19, Egypt’s government has implemented measures of social distancing and partial lockdowns. Some of these measures have had a direct impact on mobile workers, who form the largest portion of internal migrants. They have been more severely affected by the measures compared with residential workers.

By the end of April, the Egyptian prime minister had made 15 key governmental decrees, which remain effective until further notice. The majority of these decrees have had their first and biggest impact on casual workers and commuters.

Curfews and lockdowns

A partial lockdown was implemented in the country from 7pm to 6am, which was then revised to 9pm to 6am from the start of the holy month of Ramadan. In addition to these curfew measures, some villages and governorates are in total isolation where no one is allowed in or out of specified areas. This restricts the movement of workers from these areas who have their jobs in metropolitan areas or elsewhere.

Movement of people from one place to another has increased rates of infection. With limited awareness and self-hygiene, the virus has spread more quickly in some areas, making total isolation necessary to avoid them turning into virus epicentres and spreading the disease to other villages in the area or other governorates. Total isolation includes closure of all roads leading to the village as well as banning any sort of interaction between villagers and outsiders for 14 days.

The curfew is applicable to all methods of transport and vehicles. Public and private mass transport is operating on a limited capacity, to ensure social distancing, and with limited operating hours to respect the curfew hours set by the government. Moreover, food service industries remain operational as take-away service until curfew hours where they switch to home delivery only. Commercial and craft shops remain closed, with commercial centres and shopping malls operating until 5pm.

The unprecedented impact on mobile workers and commuters

The curfews, partial lockdowns and isolation measures highly restrict the mobility of people. On the one hand, this restriction is acting as extra measures to protect not just the commuters, but also villages and governorates from the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, by carefully analysing the composition and background of the commuters, we realise that this restriction on their mobility is expected to have a drastic impact on the survival of their families. Moving from one place to another for a job is the only source of income for many families, and this restriction could therefore push them into further poverty. With no social protection, the situation is worsened for these families, and their survival is at high risk.

The co-existence phase

Relaxation of the curfew measures currently in place and announcements by the government of further relaxation by the end of the holy month of Ramadan have given hope to the casual workers commuting for income and the survival of their families.

Economic co-existence with Covid-19 is an approach that is highly welcomed specifically by this group of workers. They are hopeful of going back to their economic activities and thereby improving the economic situation of their families after this sudden shock.

On the other hand, commuters are expected to be the highest risk in spreading the virus among their families, villages and governorates if it goes out of control. The commuters not only go to their jobs every morning, but they also use public transport, in its diverse options, for their commute. The overcrowded nature of many forms of transport is posing great health risks for individual workers and their families.

The struggle remains between the economic survival of the families of the commuters and the health survival of the individuals, their families and their surrounding communities. The choice is difficult – and both economic and health survival will be put to the test in the coming weeks.

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