On the other end of the phone, their tour guide asked the Americans to return to their Nile cruise ship, the M/S Asara. The three, unfazed, thought their guide was just being cautious.
“I thought it would be simple,” he said, “and I would soon be on my way back home.”
But when they boarded the ship on which they’d spent the previous week dining, drinking and sleeping, they found out 12 crew members tested positive for the coronavirus. The ship undocked and began floating down the Nile, away from the city, away from the airport.
Egyptian health officials took passengers’ temperatures, swabbed their mouths and nostrils and collected blood. After less than 24 hours of waiting and worrying, 33 passengers were told they tested positive, given masks and led off the ship in the middle of the night. Swider was one of them.
Swider, a managing editor for TechRadar, a technology news website, had packed his luggage full of cameras and equipment to capture his vacation. He bought souvenirs in ports to bring home to family and friends. Instead, Swider carried the hefty suitcase along uneven cobblestone streets, struggling to keep up with the Egyptian officials marching the tourists to a caravan of ambulances, which took them to a military plane.
“My twitter and FB are filled with wonderful photos,” he messaged a Washington Post reporter as he boarded the plane to an Egyptian hospital, “which ends now sadly.”
Although he wasn’t symptomatic, Egyptians packed him into a hospital with other patients who were coughing and seemed feverish.
His oxygen levels, blood pressure, temperature and heart rate were all normal, making him wonder if he even had the virus that has infected more than 125,000 people around the world and 60 in Egypt.
Four days later, his suspicions were confirmed when he and at least four others were taken from their rooms and told they were actually free of the coronavirus.
They weren’t allowed to leave, though. Instead, they were brought back to the same hospital floor and put in another room.
“I don’t know when I’ll be allowed to leave,” Swider said. “There are no guarantees they can give me. I’ve been told a lot of different things, and very few things have panned out to be true.”
At first, he was told if he tested negative, he would be let go. Then the hospital staff said he would be transferred to a hotel. Using hand signals, like thumbs up, the staff and Swider have tried to negotiate a confusing time, when health officials everywhere attempt to wade through muddled information.
In Egypt, citizens have questioned how the government has prepared given a lack of transparency. In China, where the virus was first detected, the rate of infection ebbed and flowed depending on officials’ evolving decisions on how to count it. In the United States, states contend with limited coronavirus tests, hospitals face shortages of necessary supplies and the White House battles political fallout.
Even back on the ship, the passengers who tested negative were given differing information on when they would be let off. Four days into their 14-day quarantine, without warning, they were let off the ship and returned home. Some weren’t even asked at American airports if they had been tested.
“It’s an analogy of everything that’s happened,” Swider said. “That’s the biggest lesson everyone could learn from coronavirus. It can catch you off guard. I don’t think anyone has tackled it with much victory.”
In the hospital, which is secluded, Swider yearns for certain comforts — like a shower. A care package from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo with soap, shampoo and a towel has yet to arrive as of Wednesday night.
Desperate to return to his home in New York, Swider has chronicled his journey — the wonderful and the horrendous — on social media. Wearing his blue “I heart Egypt” shirt, he implores for U.S. help in his return.
Others in tech journalism, even rivals on the beat, have also taken to Twitter to demand he be allowed to leave Egypt, using the hashtag #SendMattSwiderHome.
“Glad to see you with a clean bill of health, @mattswider,” Michael Fisher, known as Mr. Mobile, tweeted to his 141,000 followers. “Now come back home!”
Swider’s saga has attracted Egyptian followers as well. When he ran out of toilet paper in the hospital, his new foreign fans helped him translate his request for “manadel” to his hospital staff.
On Wednesday, he was interviewed by phone on a news show on Egyptian channel DMC.
Swider said the Egyptian people have been kind. The staff, although overwhelmed, seem to want to help.
“I’m feeling joyful about the reception I’m getting from the Egyptian people,” he said. “They buoyed my spirits, but at the same time, I’m fearful about not knowing when I’ll get out.”