Fear snowballs in Middle East over spread of coronavirus

The UAE has imposed tight restrictions, warning citizens and foreign residents not to travel abroad during the global outbreak.
Sunday 08/03/2020
A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask stands outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. (AFP)
Across divides. A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask stands outside Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. (AFP)

LONDON - The number of people infected with the novel coronavirus topped 100,000 as of March 6, as the global epidemic upended routines, threatened livelihoods and prompted quarantine measures.

The consequences of the virus outbreak extended beyond the health realm, as closed borders and a general economic slowdown were expected to hurt struggling communities for months to come.

World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley warned of the potential for “absolute devastation” as the outbreak’s effects rippled through Africa and the Middle East, parts of which are already suffering from conflict and instability.

By far the worst hit country in the Middle East was Iran, whose authorities planned to set up checkpoints to limit travel and urged people to stop using paper money that was thought to be playing a part in the spread of the illness.

After downplaying the severity of the outbreak for weeks, Iran said March 6 it had 4,747 confirmed cases and 124 deaths related to coronavirus. Iranian Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour confirmed the virus was reported in all 31 Iranian provinces. Friday prayers were cancelled across major cities.

Iraq cancelled Friday prayers in Karbala, where a weekly sermon is delivered on behalf of the country’s top Shia cleric. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates limited prayers to two verses of the Quran, so they lasted no more than 10 minutes.

Saudi Arabia has been especially cautious as the health concern grows, taking the unprecedented measure of barring Muslim pilgrims from Islam’s holiest sites for the year-round umrah pilgrimage to prevent an outbreak.

There are fears that the pilgrimages, which see millions of people converge on relatively small religious sites, could be a major source of contagion spread. However, the cancellations drew scrutiny from religious hardliners and risks costing the kingdom millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

The United Arab Emirates, home to two of the world’s major long-haul airlines — Emirates and Etihad — has imposed tight restrictions, warning citizens and foreign residents not to travel abroad during the global outbreak.

The warning from the country’s Health and Community Protection Ministry came as Abu Dhabi sent 215 foreigners it evacuated from hard-hit Hubei in China to a quarantine area in Emirates Humanitarian City. They include citizens of Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.

Health officials warned that those travelling abroad could face quarantine at the discretion of authorities.

In the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, an important stop for Christian pilgrims, authorities closed the Church of the Nativity and banned tourists from the Israeli-occupied West Bank just weeks ahead of the Easter season.

The action by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities threatened to devastate the vital tourism industry in the town where Jesus is believed to have been born.

The Church of the Nativity was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus. The Health Ministry said seven Palestinians from Bethlehem had tested positive for the virus. They worked at a hotel where Greek tourists who later were found to have the virus stayed in late February.

Israeli and Palestinian health officials met March 5 to coordinate responses and shared information on the virus’s spread.

COGAT, the Israeli defence body responsible for Palestinian civilian matters, said it delivered 250 test kits to the Palestinians and was coordinating training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.

COGAT said the closure of Bethlehem would apply to all Israelis and Palestinians but not goods, which would continue to flow freely and the closure would remain in place until further notice.

More than 4,990 cases of the virus, which causes the illness COVID-19, have been confirmed across the Middle East. Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside of China.

As the virus spreads, World Health Organisation workers have been racing to sort, package and ship medical supplies to countries around the world. Demand for protective medical supplies, such as masks, gloves and gowns, is skyrocketing. More than 101,000 people have been infected in around 90 countries.