A new law will grant the government exceptional powers to respond to pandemics and epidemics, which are set to include prison sentences for charges of publishing false information about health affairs.
The bill was submitted by the Cabinet to the House of Representatives, who approved it on Tuesday.
Out of 25 measures laid out in the new law, 14 resemble powers that were previously conferred to the government and law enforcement services by the emergency law, which operated in Egypt for years until it expired last month and the president announced that it would not be renewed.
The government would also be allowed to set the cost of treatment at private hospitals in pandemic or epidemic conditions, a measure that could target the price gouging that took place at private health facilities nationwide during the course of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The law consists of eight articles, some of which are lifted from provisions that were added to the emergency law in 2020 as the government took steps to confront the outbreak of COVID-19.
After approval by the Cabinet, the law would grant the prime minister the right to declare epidemic or pandemic, which must include a set period after which the special legal conditions would either expire or be renewed.
Once agreed upon, the prime minister’s decision should be reviewed by Parliament within a week, as well as whenever it is renewed.
The 25 measures would then come into effect, among them the suspension of work and education, the postponement of electricity bills, facilitations to allow for tax payment in installments, and the formation of a committee including various Cabinet ministers and health officials to manage the country’s response to the health situation.
Punishments would be meted out to “anyone who intentionally broadcasts, publishes, or promotes false or tendentious news, statements, or rumors related to the situation of epidemics if it would disturb public peace, stir panic among citizens, or harm the public interest, by imprisonment for one year and/or a fine of LE10,000,” under the law. House members made an amendment in Tuesday’s session that will exempt journalists from the punishment, though medical workers, including doctors, nurses, lab technicians, or other employees would still be eligible for prosecution.
Many people who published statements on social media regarding the Egyptian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in hospitals and prisons in 2020 were arrested and in several cases sentenced to prison terms.
Ahmed Azab, a healthcare researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Mada Masr he believes that the penalties for publishing about health affairs were “dangerous,” though he endorsed the stipulation for the government to determine the cost of treatment at private hospitals to prevent patient exploitation.
Private hospitals resisted requests from the state to lower their prices last year, although the government was allowed limited authority over private health facilities under amendments made to the emergency law in 2020.