Middle East in lockdown mode as virus toll rises

Egypt suspends flights starting Thursday
Monday 16/03/2020
People crowd supermarket as they stock up on provisions in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Health Ministry officials say there are more confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Lebanon. (AP)
People crowd supermarket as they stock up on provisions in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Health Ministry officials say there are more confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Lebanon. (AP)y 12, 2020 . (Reuters)

TEHRAN--Iran reported another 129 fatalities from the new coronavirus on Monday, the largest one-day rise in deaths since it began battling the Middle East's worst outbreak, which has claimed more than 850 lives and infected a number of senior officials in the country.

Businesses in Iran's capital remained open, however, even as other countries in the region moved toward full lockdowns, with Lebanon largely shutting down and Iraqis racing to prepare for a curfew set to begin later this week.

The divergent approaches adopted by local authorities reflect continued uncertainty over how to slow the spread of a virus that has infected around 170,000 people worldwide and caused more than 6,500 deaths.

Some have opted for an even more aggressive response. Israel, where the number of confirmed cases has more than doubled to around 250 in recent days, has authorized the use of phone-snooping technology long used against Palestinian militants to track coronavirus patients. Such practices will spark renewed debate over privacy issues as countries around the world confront the pandemic.

Egypt said on Monday all flights would be suspended until the end of the month to stem the spread of the coronavirus, in a move expected to hit the key tourism industry.

"Flights will be suspended from Thursday until March 31," Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly told a televised news conference.

He said the move was necessary to lessen social interaction especially among "tourists coming in or out of Egypt".

Losses from a flight shutdown are expected to reach more than 2.25 billion Egyptian pounds ($130 million), the prime minister said.

Iraq announced a weeklong curfew late Sunday. People raced to supermarkets and swiftly emptied shelves, while others stocked up on cooking fuel. The curfew, which is set to begin late Tuesday, includes the suspension of all flights from Baghdad's international airport.

Iraq's Health Ministry has reported 124 cases of coronavirus and nine deaths.

In Lebanon, where the government ordered a lockdown, traffic was thin and some streets were completely empty on Monday, the start of the working week. Restaurants, cafes and bars have been closed since last week and most private businesses were shuttered Monday.

Police asked shop owners to close in line with the government orders and moved to clear the few remaining people from Beirut's seaside corniche. Pharmacies, bakeries and other food sellers were allowed to stay open. The small country has reported 99 cases and three deaths.

One of the worst outbreaks in the world has unfolded in Iran, which has close ties to both Iraq and Lebanon. Authorities there have reported 14,991 confirmed cases and 853 deaths. Monday's jump in fatalities was the largest one-day rise since the epidemic began. The real numbers may be even higher, as some have questioned the government's reporting.

A member of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint or dismiss the country's supreme leader, died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported Monday.

Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei, 78, is the latest of several Iranian officials to have died. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials have caught the virus, compounding fears about Iran's response to the pandemic.

The official leading Iran's response to the virus on Sunday expressed concerns that health facilities could be overwhelmed if the rate of new cases continues to climb.

Mideast stock markets tumbled Monday, with the Dubai Financial Market closing down 6.14% and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange down 7.83%. Both have closed their trading floors over fears about the virus. Egypt's benchmark index, the EGX 30, dropped by over 7%, extending a 32% plunge since the beginning of the year.

Israel’s Health Ministry said more than 1,000 doctors and a similar number of nurses have been quarantined. The health care system is already suffering from budget limitations linked to the prolonged political deadlock in Israel, which has not had a permanent government in more than a year.

The Palestinian Authority said anyone entering the territory would be placed in quarantine for 14 days. The Palestinians have reported nearly 40 cases, most linked to an outbreak in the town of Bethlehem.

Jordan has announced similar measures, saying travelers arriving in the country will be quarantined at hotels on the Dead Sea and in the southern Red Sea city of Aqaba.

In Dubai, authorities announced that all bars and pubs would be closed through the end of the month and ordered people not to hold weddings or parties in their homes. Community pools were also locked down.

In Saudi Arabia, the capital and other cities announced the closure of malls, cafes and parks, allowing only grocery stores and pharmacies to stay open and limiting restaurants to delivery.

Pakistan meanwhile reported a surge of 41 new cases in its Sindh province, which borders Iran. That brought its total number of infections to 120. Authorities there have closed schools and universities.

(With AP)