Spike in cases fuels fears of new pandemic wave in MENA

Iran worst affected, but concerns in Algeria, Libya and Lebanon.

Thursday 30/07/2020
An Iranian woman gets her temperature checked as she arrives for prayer at the Tehran University Campus mosque, on July 30. (AFP)
An Iranian woman gets her temperature checked as she arrives for prayer at the Tehran University Campus mosque, on July 30. (AFP)

TUNIS – A spike in the cases of the cornavirus pandemic are driving fears of a second wave in the Middle East, with Libya announcing a full lockdown, Lebanon reporting Wednesday the highest single-day infection tally since February and Iran saying the number of cases passed beyond the 300,000 mark.

Across the Middle East, some countries are taking measures to avoid being overwhelmed by another wave of COVID-19 infections.

Libya to impose full lockdown

In Libya, the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) said it will impose a full lockdown in areas of the country it controls after a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

Libya, split since 2014 between areas held by the GNA in Tripoli and a rival administration in the east, managed to avoid an early surge of the pandemic.

However, the disease has been spreading more quickly this month and Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), one of the few bodies that operates across the country despite the conflict, has confirmed 3,222 cases.

Libya’s health system is in tatters after nearly a decade of chaos and war that has fragmented the state, destroyed infrastructure and left many people living in crowded conditions after fleeing their homes.

The main outbreaks are focused in Tripoli, the port of Misrata and in the southern desert town of Sebha, according to the NCDC, though cases have also been confirmed in most other major population centres.

The lockdown will start on Friday and last for at least five days, forbidding all movement outside except to buy necessities, and replacing a partial 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

Friday will also be the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Authorities in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, have also imposed restrictions on movement but, with fewer cases confirmed there, have not yet ordered a full lockdown.

Fresh measures in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the situation is no better. The country on Wednesday reported 182 new coronavirus cases ahead of fresh lockdown measures that go into effect at midnight.

The new cases bring the total number of COVID-19 infections in Lebanon to 4,202, including 55 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures cited by the state-run National News Agency (NNA).

New nationwide lockdown measures were announced this week following a rise in cases after previous restrictions were gradually lifted.

To stem a larger outbreak, the government ordered a lockdown from July 30 through August 3, coinciding with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The lockdown will then be suspended for two days, with restaurants and cafés allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity. Nightclubs, bars, indoor pools and public parks will remain closed.

Restrictions will then go back into force for another five days, after which authorities will reassess whether stricter measures need to be imposed.

Lebanon had gradually lifted lockdown measures starting in May and in early July, it opened the Beirut airport to commercial flights after a closure of more than three months.

But new cases have increased since restaurants, bars, clubs and resorts reopened.

Worsening situation in Iran

In Iran, the situation is apparently worsening, with the Health Ministry announcing Thursday a rise in the number of infections to reach 301,530.

However, no strict measures have been ordered.

Iran has the Middle East4s highest number of recorded COVID-19 cases and infections and deaths have risen sharply since restrictions on movement began to be eased in mid-April.

There were 226 deaths from the new coronavirus in the past 24 hours taking the total number of deaths from the pandemic to 16,569.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani urged people on Saturday to observe health protocols and practice social distancing during upcoming Muslim festivities, as a health official said there had been a surge in coronavirus infections in a major holy city.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, speaking on state television on Saturday, urged people not to visit the north-eastern holy city of Mashhad, which he said had seen an increase of 300% in COVID-19 cases over a one-month period.

Pandemic-linked shockwaves in Israel

The pandemic is also creating a crisis in Israel as infections are surging, and opinions polls are showing confidence in the management of the threat by the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is falling. He now faces nationwide protests over the state of the economy, hit by the coronavirus.

Waving banners outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, demonstrators are led by young people who scarcely remember any other leader — Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009 — but want him to resign.

“We are a generation who have lost complete faith in the system. People are fighting for their livelihood,” said Costa Black, 30, who was arrested during the protests and lost his restaurant job because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy. “Our leaders stopped serving us, they don’t care about us.”

.Police officers and travellers at the entrance of the Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, Morocco. AFP
Police officers and travellers at the entrance of the Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, Morocco.(AFP)

With a population of 9 million, Israel has recorded 68,000 coronavirus infections, of which 75% occurred post-lockdown, and 497 fatalities. It is now on a “Red List” of countries whose citizens are barred from the European Union.

Many restrictions have been lifted to revive business activity, but unemployment hovers at 21.5% and the economy is expected to contract by 6% in 2020. A Central Bureau of Statistics survey showed 55% of Israelis fear they will have difficulty paying bills, up from 46% during lockdown.

“Israelis understood in March-April that the situation is difficult and were willing to accept it because they felt the government was doing the utmost,” Israeli Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner said.

“Now the sense is the government is no longer managing, from both an economic standpoint and a health standpoint.”

Plesner said the long-term implications for Netanyahu remain unclear. But the latest poll would give his Likud Party just 31 of the parliament’s 120 seats, down five. Other right-wing parties would improve their standing.

Algeria, not safe anymore

Algeria has recently seen a rise in coronavirus cases, with 675 infections — a one-day record for the country — recorded last Friday.

The rise in cases prompted the European Union to reimpose travel restrictions on the North African country on Wednesday, removing it from a list of relatively safe countries.

Though the final decision on who to admit rests with national governments, the decision effectively bans travel from Algeria to the EU.

An EU diplomat said Algeria’s neighbour Morocco would stay on the safe list but would be kept under close watch.

Cases surpass 22,000 in Morocco

Confirmed coronavirus cases in Morocco rose to 22,213 on Wednesday after 826 new infections were recorded in the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said.

The death toll from the virus increased to 334 after seven new fatalities were confirmed, said Mouad Mrabet, Coordinator at the Moroccan Centre for Public Health Operations at the Health Ministry.

Moroccan authorities said the virus’ spread has accelerated since July 17, when the third phase of lifting the health lockdown started.

On Wednesday, King Mohammed VI said the government will inject $12.8 billion as a post-coronavirus crisis stimulus package to offer incentives and come up with solidarity measures to support businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.

The package represents 11% of Morocco’s GDP, “a proportion that will place Morocco at the forefront of the most enterprising countries in terms of post-crisis stimulus packages,” the Moroccan king said during a state of the Nation address.

Asking the government to support the sectors affected by the pandemic and safeguard jobs, the king admitted that the repercussion of the pandemic will be severe.

“I must say, in all frankness, that the repercussions of this health crisis will be harsh.”

In Tunisia, concern about incoming travellers

The situation was brought under control and the country fared better than other Maghreb countries. But with the lifting of international travel restrictions, June 26, infections increased even if the number of deaths remained at 50.

Authorities announced Thursday 26 new infections, including 4 local cases and 22 cases connected to incoming travellers.

The new cases brought the total number of infections to 1,514.

Six cases of COVID-19 were reported among Tunis Carthage International Airport staff.