The Search for Legitimate Sanitizing Alcohol
Shops line both sides of narrow alleys branching out from Al-Ahmar Mosque Street at the end of Ataba Square in the direction of Ramses Street, in central Cairo.
As soon as you take a step, your nostrils pick up an unpleasant smell emanating from containers of expired medicines that have been collected then emptied. These are to be reused and filled with alcohol that is supposed to be used for sterilization against the Coronavirus Covid-19 disease.
On one side of a small shop, plastic bags filled with old containers are lined up. A man in his fifties with gray hair stands in the front of the shop. Before him lies a bathtub coated with rust and filled with containers of naphthalene floating in dirty water. This is a deadly substance used for terminating insects applied to disinfect factory and hospital floors. In the middle of the small shop, there is also a huge barrel filled with empty containers swimming in the dark water that are to be reused. They are about to be dried with even dirtier rags and filled with alcohol.
The man in his fifties points to the bottles and says, “They are suitable for filling with alcohol after a thorough wash.The price of an empty bottle is 4 pounds.”
With the peak of the spread of the novel Coronavirus in its first wave, the World Health Organization announced the urgency of using ethyl alcohol as a means to sanitize hands and surfaces to prevent infection. Consequently, there had been a rush to purchase sterilizers in all shapes and sizes.
Like other Egyptians and as a mother of a young toddler, I was very anxious and started looking for a means of protection and prevention from infection. I followed instructions and collected a supply of detergents and chlorine. The most widely used item for sterilizing, alcohol, remained to be found.
I thought this would be a simple task. I went to the first pharmacy to get a bottle of 70% alcohol. The pharmacist replied sarcastically: “If you ever find it, get me some. The whole country is talking about alcohol.” This was on March 10 of last year.
I went out, confident that I would find my request at my pharmacist acquaintances. I started the torturous journey of searching for a bottle of alcohol with a concentration of at least 70%. This marked the start of this investigation, which will reveal a double scam. The first is that the sterilizing material itself, which is mixed with water to dilute the alcohol concentration, is below 70%, the required percentage to protect against Covid-19. The second scam taking place is that the hand-filled bottles are being processed without the minimal conditions of health and hygiene.
The narrow streets are crowded with workers busy transporting “washed” containers in white bags and distributing them to the shops and selling them to street traders who haggle over prices and sizes. There are 50 ml, 100 ml and 150 ml bottles with prices ranging from 5 to 10 pounds, that is less than one dollar.
These containers are re-used and filled with diluted alcohol, which is no longer just sold in pharmacies. It is also sold in supermarkets, detergent stores, perfumeries and on the sidewalks.
The investigating reporter examined dozens of stores down the same street and spotted two types of containers intended for manual filling. The first was old and used, and had been washed to be sold like the ones previously mentioned. The other was new, unused and imported from China. The price of this last type with a capacity of 100 ml reached 15 pounds, according to the traders of the Al-Ahmar Mosque Street and Clot Bey.
The scene is close to a public auction. The sellers of containers stand on high chairs while the traders around them jostle and race to get a mere 100 bottles, whereas they were able to buy 500 of them not too long ago. With the high demand in containers and a monopoly on the bottles, the price hikes began. Some decided not to sell more than a hundred containers at once, so that the goods would not run out quickly and to achieve greater profits if prices should rise.
Interestingly, the price and shape of the plastic container is identical to the licensed alcohol that is diluted to 70% and sold in pharmacies for 5 pounds with a spray nozzle. Where do these bottles come from? Possibly they are collected from waste. We urgently directed this question to the head of the Syndicate of Refuse Collectors, Shehata Muqadas. He categorically denied the issue and confirmed that “All plastic containers collected from the garbage are broken and then melted. Then, they enter washing lines and become beads. This is a material recycled in plastic recycling factories in Cairo at 3000 degrees Celsius.” The question remained pending, as we went back to research the materials that the bottles are filled with.
During the three hours we spent between Clot Bey Street and Al-Ahmar Mosque Street, we learned that the liquid that went into these bottles was sold on the parallel Al-Jaish Street.