Middle East Online

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Mideast states ramp up measures against coronavirus

Air raid sirens echoed across Jordan’s capital on Saturday to mark the start of a three-day curfew, the latest mass lockdown in the Middle East aimed at containing the coronavirus, which has claimed another 123 lives in Iran, home to the region’s worst outbreak.

In Egypt, religious authorities ordered the closure of all mosques and churches and banned communal prayer gatherings to try and stem the spread of the disease, while the United Arab Emirates reported its first two deaths from coronavirus.

Iran’s death toll from the outbreak rose by more than 100 to 1,556 and the total number of people infected now exceeds 20,000, a health ministry official said.

Iran, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic outside China, had on Friday reported a death toll of 1,433 and a total number of confirmed infections of 19,644. The total number of people diagnosed with the disease stood at 20,610 on Saturday, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said on state TV.

Jahanpur warned that coronavirus cases would rise steeply unless people refrain from travelling during the two-week Iranian New Year holiday, which started yesterday.

“If people take it lightly and think that the coronavirus outbreak is over, and if urban and inter-city traffic and gatherings in resorts and natural parks increase… then in one to two weeks we will see a new peak of the disease,” he said according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that social distancing measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including travel restrictions, will apply for only two to three weeks, expecting the crisis to ease by then.

Iran “has to do everything necessary to return economic production to normal,” he said in comments broadcast on state TV. He also accused “counter-revolutionaries” of plotting to shut down economic production.

More than 1,300 coronavirus infections have been detected in the Gulf region, with most cases initially identified among travellers returning from Iran. Countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, who have closer ties with the Islamic Republic, have also reported numerous cases originating in Iran.

Iran has faced widespread criticism for its lagging response to the outbreak, which has even infected and killed some senior officials.

The UAE on Friday reported the first two deaths from coronavirus in the country. Abu Dhabi has reported 140 infections so far, of whom 31 have recovered, but no deaths.

“The Ministry of Health and Prevention has announced the first two deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the country,” the Emirates News Agency reported.

One of the individuals was a 78-year old Arab national who had arrived in the country from Europe.

“The cause of death was a heart attack, coinciding with complications from the coronavirus disease,” the news agency quoted the ministry as saying.

The other individual, a 58-year-old Asian national and resident of the UAE, had prior chronic illnesses – heart disease and kidney failure.

Like other countries around the world, the UAE has introduced restrictions on passenger arrivals, but has not so far imposed confinement measures, and public spaces, such as shopping centres and restaurants – remain open.

In one of the strictest measures yet, Jordan has ordered all shops to close and all people to stay off the streets until at least Tuesday, when it plans to announce specific times for shopping. Anyone caught violating the curfew faces up to one year in prison.

Egypt announced that all museums and archaeological sites, including the famed pyramids at Giza, would be closed from Monday until the end of March. Mostafa Waziri, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said authorities would sterilize all sites during the closure.

Egypt also announced the temporary suspension of Friday prayers and other congregations in all mosques. The Coptic Orthodox Church cancelled all services and wedding parties, and said funeral processions would be limited to family members of the deceased.

Egypt has reported 285 cases and eight deaths, and there are increasing calls for a curfew. The most populous Arab nation is home to more than 100 million people. Cairo, the capital, is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with more than 20 million residents.

More than 275,000 people have been infected worldwide. The virus has killed more than 11,000 people, while more than 88,000 have recovered.

Saturday is Mother’s Day in the Middle East, and many took to social media to lament the fact that they would not be able to visit family members.

“Prevention is the best gift to offer you to keep you safe,” tweeted Bachir Khodr, a provincial official in northern Lebanon, who shared a photo of his video call with his mother. Lebanon has been under a general lockdown order for several days, and has reported 206 cases.

Others thanked mothers who spent the holiday working as doctors or nurses at hospitals. One popular online greeting card praised mothers as the original advocates of hand-washing.

In Iraq, Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi, the army chief of staff, ordered a 50% reduction in on-duty personnel. Officers already on leave were instructed not to return until March 31, and women were granted extended leave. The military said all officers returning to duty would undergo medical tests.

Iraq, which has reported 193 cases and 14 deaths from the coronavirus, is still battling remnants of the Islamic State group.

In war-torn Syria, which has yet to report any cases, the military said it was distributing masks and gloves to soldiers and suspending group sports as a precautionary measure. It said it was also suspending all recruitment — as well as penalties for those avoiding mandatory conscription — until April 22.

The tiny, energy-rich nation of Qatar meanwhile warned citizens and residents to honor home quarantine rules. The state-run Qatar News Agency said authorities “captured 10 people” who broke the rules. It said those who disobey the orders could face prosecution.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian security forces arrested 20 Muslim preachers for allegedly violating a ban on holding Friday prayers, the Voice of Palestine reported. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, has closed mosques and barred all group prayers.

Abdallah Kmail, the governor of Salfit, said a village in the northern West Bank was locked down after a man who returned from Pakistan and tested positive for the virus participated in prayers held in violation of the ban. The man was an adherent of Salafism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, Kmail told the Voice of Palestine.

The governor said 250 people from the village of Qarawa Bani Hassan will be tested Saturday.

The Palestinian Authority has reported 52 confirmed cases, including 17 who recovered. Jordan has reported 85 infections, including one who recovered. Qatar has reported 460 cases, including 10 who recovered.

Even the authorities in eastern Libya, who have yet to report any cases, suspended all public transportation and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. The government there is allied with Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control much of the war-torn country. Source