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Coronavirus: Egyptian billionaire tells workers to return to factories 'regardless of consequences'

Egypt's second-richest man Naguib Sawiris threatens to commit suicide if coronavirus curfew goes beyond two weeks
Naguib Sawiris, 65, is Egypt's second wealthiest man, and a founder of the pro-government political party The Free Egyptians (AFP)

Egypt's second richest man has urged authorities to order people back to work once a curfew ends, and threatened to commit suicide if the measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus exceed two weeks.

In a TV interview widely criticised by labour rights advocates, Naguib Sawiris said Egyptians should go back to work after the end of a two-week curfew - on 8 April - to prevent economic collapse. 

"We need a revolutionary decision, regardless of the consequences," he told TV host Lamees Hadidi on the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath channel

"Even if people get sick, they will recover," he said.

"Let me tell you something, I will commit suicide if they extend the [curfew] period."

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Sawiris, who belongs to Egypt's richest family, suggested three solutions to end the lockdown while keeping the country's economy in shape. 

He first suggested that workers be divided into two groups: one group that works on even-numbered days and the other works on odd-numbered days. 

Another suggestion he offered is to have employees work and sleep in factories and not return to their families, to reduce their movement. 

A third suggestion is to import test kits to enable people to detect their sickness and quarantine themselves at home. 

Sawiris downplayed the deadly effect of the coronavirus, saying "it only kills 1 percent of patients, who are mostly elderly people".

When the TV show host corrected Sawiris that the actual percentage of deaths in Egypt is 6 percent, he said that Egypt still has one of the lowest numbers of cases globally. 

Egypt's health ministry on Sunday reported 609 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 40 deaths. 

The comments triggered a barrage of criticism by Egyptian commentators and human rights advocates, some of whom called on the businessman to donate a portion of his wealth to support workers during the crisis. 

Translation: "The billionaire Naguib Sawiris has a right to call for immediate measures 'regardless of the consequences' to save the country. We also call on the government to impose a one-time 10% tax on anyone whose wealth exceeds 10 million pounds, and to allocate it to the education and health sectors. The Sawiris and Mansour families alone can donate some 25 billion pounds."

Egypt's revolutionary socialist movement issued a statement condemning Sawiris' remarks as "a manifestation of the true face of capitalism, which is the exploitation and the frantic pursuit of profit, even at the expense of the lives of millions of workers".

The businessman said that his wealth, however, was largely intact due to his investments in the gold sector, which he predicts will flourish as a result of the closure of gold refineries around the world, prompting an increase in demand and prices. 

"Half of my money is invested in gold, itself an insurance policy against crises," he told Hadidi, advising potential stock market investors to refrain from buying shares because "we have not hit rock bottom yet".

"Next week we will see a bloodbath [in the stock market]. Some companies may see their values plummet to 10 percent of their original worth."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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