Rawan Ezzat
Last updated: 14 June, 2013

Power cutoffs threaten Egyptian lives

In a dimly lit overcrowded corridor at Al Khalifa General, a public hospital’s worst nightmare come to life as the power goes out and backup generators don’t kick in, leaving critically ill patients without the mechanical help they need to breathe.

A patient relying on a support system died within minutes after the power went out.

For the first time in fifty years, the death of a 75-year-old patient occurred without the alarms signaling possible heart and breathing problems. The power outage caused the machines to fail to beep for attention, said “Amin”, a doctor at the hospital.

“The nurseries, the Intensive Care Units (ICUs), the operation rooms are all severely affected by that. The crisis is becoming dangerous for those who need it the most,” he added.

Governmental hospitals suffer most from power cuts as generators aren’t enough to serve as an alternative – that is if there even exist any at all.

“The power went off in the middle of an abdominal surgery I was conducting”

“About 50 to 60 percent of Egypt’s hospitals lack generators,” Amin said.

Hospitals have had to postpone some elective surgeries in order to reduce the risk to patients. At times, patients were sent home due to disruption in the supply of power, while serious patients were sent to private hospitals to undergo urgent operations.

Due to extensive power cuts that started early this summer, the Electricity Ministry issued a statement declaring that “fuel shortages have made it difficult for allocated generators to keep up with the escalating consumption.”

Ahmed Gendy, another doctor at Al Khalifa General, recalled a day when electricity went off.

“My main concern was to check on all the infants, especially the only baby girl in the room, as I knew that she had weak lungs, thus needs more attention.”

Leaving the room worried, he arranged for the baby to be moved to another hospital until the lights were back.

“This happens nearly every day for an hour or two, which is very frustrating, and generators are very expensive to acquire,” Gendy said.

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Some public hospitals have generators that are supposed to kick in whenever there are power outages. However, most of the time generators are out of service, either because they have mechanical faults or they don’t have fuel.

Given the limited reliability of generators, some doctors resort to the lights of their mobile devices to minimize the damage of power cuts and fluctuations in power to sensitive medical equipment.

“On May, the power went off in the middle of an abdominal surgery I was conducting and had to get nurses to use the flash lights on their mobile phones, as the surgery had to be finished immediately,” Amin recalled. Instead of completing the surgery in 20 minutes, it took two hours.

Nurses at the public hospitals are allocated to each patient and sometimes have to take over the breathing requirements manually as all the ventilators go off.

“It gets very frustrating, when the power goes off,” Amina Ahmed, a nurse at Salam Hospital in Cairo, said.

Malek Adly, a lawyer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), said that the country’s officials must create a timetable detailing the time and place where power cuts will occur.

“This must be done in order to prevent needless loss of life,” he added. Others suggest that the government should use solar energy or nuclear energy to prevent electricity shortage.

Critics of the government’s handling – or absence of handling ­– of the electricity problem complain about a lack of transparency about the exact reasons as well as a disregard for the catastrophic consequences of the deficit. The Egyptian public is watching worriedly, waiting for those in charge to step up to the plate and take responsibility.

For security reasons, the interviewees chose to remain anonymous. These are not their real names.

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