When Matt Swider was tested for the new coronavirus on his Nile cruise in Egypt’s tourist hub of Luxor, he assumed the government was just taking extreme precautions.
At that point, Swider, a 35-year-old tech editor living in New York, couldn’t have imagined that he would become the face of Egypt’s coronavirus outbreak, confined indefinitely to a remote hospital on the country’s north coast. The virus had plagued his vessel, the Asara, for weeks after a string of its passengers tested positive after returning home. By Thursday, the Health Ministry had detected 67 cases in the country.
When his lab results came back negative Saturday, Swider was so overcome with relief that he called his anxiety-prone mother in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, inadvertently admitting he had traveled to Egypt in the first place.
In this photo provided by Matt Swider, posted on Twitter on March 9, 2020, American tourist Matt Swider, takes a selfie while in quarantine in the north coast city of Marsa Matrouh, Egypt.
(Matt Swider via AP)
Minutes later, his phone pinged: The tests had been mixed up. He was confirmed with the virus.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I was just wracking my brain thinking how could I have gotten this? How is the luck of the draw coming into play?”
Nearly 100 of his cruise ship companions, including spouses of those infected, tested negative and flew home from quarantine late Tuesday.
Instead of jetting home to see his girlfriend that day as planned, Swider was herded onto a cramped military jet with 32 other sick passengers and flown far north to an isolation unit in the city of Marsa Matrouh. The rocky journey was silent until one of his companions, an older American woman, started to sob.
“You don’t know what kind of sentence you’re in for,” Swider said. “That’s how it feels to have this virus.” Because he takes arthritis medicine that suppresses his immune system, he’s especially at risk. So far, his symptoms have been negligible.
Since Sunday, Swider has been hooked up to a vitamin IV in his hospital bed. Most of the staff doesn’t speak English. Communication problems abound. His pleas for toilet paper went unanswered for days. His first meal of the day arrives at 4:30 p.m. He still hasn’t found towels or soap for a shower.
Testing procedures have been unclear and contradictory, feeding his anxiety. When results from his second test came back negative, doctors told him the first was a false positive. They gave him the all-clear and promised to relocate him to a nearby hotel. Then they moved him upstairs with a few infected French and German tourists for a week of more tests.
“It’s very clear that we are Egypt’s first cases en masse,” he said.
Swider fills his days trying to capture the cell tower’s weak signal to call his terrified mother. He has also turned to Twitter to chronicle his botched vacation. His journey’s dramatic turn from sunny temple tours to bedridden isolation has racked up tens of thousands of follows. Many adopted the hashtag #SendMattSwiderHome, imploring the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to intervene.
He says the constant stream of supportive responses helps him “fight back the boredom and uncertainty,” leaving him a little less alone.