Syria braces for lockdown after 1st COVID-19 case, as Iran outbreak worsens

Syrians are rushing to stock up on food and fuel amid fears that authorities will resort to even stricter measures after reporting the first coronavirus infection in the war-ravaged country.

Health-care system in Syria has been devastated by nearly decade of civil war

A man walks near empty shops in Damascus on Sunday as Syria confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. (Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters)

Syrians rushed to stock up on food and fuel on Monday amid fears that authorities would resort to even stricter measures after reporting the first coronavirus infection in the country, where the health-care system has been decimated by nearly a decade of civil war.

The arrival of the global pandemic in Syria, as well as the Gaza Strip, has raised concerns it could run rampant in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. War-torn Libya and Yemen, which have yet to report any cases, are also sources of concern.

The worst outbreak in the Middle East is unfolding in Iran, where authorities reported another 127 deaths on Monday, bringing the total number of fatalities to more than 1,800 amid more than 23,000 confirmed cases. The dead included the mother-in-law of the son of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the official IRNA news agency said.

Iran has faced widespread criticism for not imposing stricter quarantine measures early on. It is also suffering under severe U.S. sanctions.

Lines formed outside grocery stores, banks and gas stations across the Syrian capital of Damascus, as people braced for wider closures. The government has already closed restaurants, cafés and other businesses, and has halted public transportation.

The city's Hamidiyeh souk, a network of covered markets running through the Old City, was deserted after the government ordered all shops closed on Sunday.

Authorities closed border crossings with Lebanon and Jordan, and Damascus International Airport was closed to commercial traffic after a final flight arrived from Moscow. State-run newspapers issued their last print edition and will only be available online.

Countries across the Middle East have already ramped up restrictions on daily life in an effort to contain the global pandemic. Many have sealed their borders and cancelled flights.

The United Arab Emirates, home to one of the world's busiest international airports, said it was suspending all passenger and transit flights for two weeks. Dubai's airport is a vital hub connecting Western nations with Asian countries and Australia.

Most people experience mild symptoms from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus and recover within weeks. But it is highly contagious and causes severe illness in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. People can carry and spread the virus without showing any symptoms.

Around 350,000 people have been infected worldwide, and more than 15,000 have died. More than 100,000 people have recovered.

Close ties to Iran

Syria has close ties to Iran, which is a key ally of the government in the civil war, and Shia pilgrims frequently travel between the two countries. Syria's health ministry said a 20-year-old woman tested positive after arriving from another country, without elaborating.

Syria's health-care system has been ravaged by nearly a decade of war that has displaced millions of people and created rampant poverty. Hospitals and clinics across the country have been destroyed or damaged. The government is also under heavy international sanctions linked to its conduct during the war.

The pro-government daily Al-Watan quoted China's ambassador as saying that Beijing has given Syria equipment to test 2,000 people for coronavirus.

2 million people, 60 ventilators

Gaza, where two people tested positive after returning from Pakistan, has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces.

The coastal territory is home to more than two million people but it has only around 60 ventilators. All but 15 are already in use, according to Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization's Gaza office.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a shoe shop in a mostly empty street in downtown Tehran on Sunday. Iran has imposed a two-week closure on major shopping malls and centres across the country to prevent spreading of the novel coronavirus. Pharmacies, supermarkets, groceries and bakeries will remain open. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading a war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, is already home to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Millions depend on food aid, and the country has suffered a series of cholera outbreaks in recent years.

Altaf Musani, the WHO representative in Yemen, said the entire health-care system in the nation of 29 million people is operating at less than half its capacity and officials are "deeply alarmed" by the possibility of an outbreak, which would be "catastrophic."

There are just two hospital facilities for dealing with the coronavirus, one in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, and one in Aden, the seat of the internationally recognized government. The laboratory in Aden only started testing suspected cases on Monday and humanitarian officials believe chances are high of as-yet undetected cases.

Loudspeaker system revived

In eastern Libya, authorities will impose a round-the-clock curfew starting Wednesday that will last one week. The government there is allied with Khalifa Hifter, a military commander whose forces control much of the country and are battling rivals in the capital, Tripoli.

The eastern administration has already imposed a nightly curfew and closed mosques, educational facilities and shops. It has banned large gatherings and suspended public transportation.

In Iraq, authorities have begun using a loudspeaker system for the first time since the 1990 Gulf War to urge citizens to stay home and avoid large gatherings. Iraq's Health Ministry has reported 23 fatalities among 266 confirmed cases.

Neighbouring Jordan used air-raid sirens on Saturday to announce the start of a curfew. The government said it would begin delivering essential goods to citizens on Tuesday, working through municipalities, water distributors and large companies. Pharmacies, bakeries and gas stations will reopen, but without direct contact with customers.

Jordan has reported 127 cases.

In Egypt, tens of thousands of people working in the major tourist destinations of Luxor, Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh, along with 300 families in the Nile Delta, have been ordered into a 14-day quarantine.

Parliament suspended

In Cairo, workers have been disinfecting exhibits in the famed Egyptian Museum, including the gilded mask of King Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut. Authorities have temporarily closed all museums and tourist sites, including the pyramids at Giza.

State-run television, meanwhile, reported that a second senior military officer has died from the virus in as many days after taking part in disinfecting efforts around the city. On Monday, Parliament suspended activities for two weeks, speaker Ali Abdel-Al said. Egypt has reported around 330 cases and 16 deaths.

Sudan, which is still reeling from the revolt that toppled President Omar al-Bashir last year, announced a nightly curfew starting Tuesday. It also has a fragile health-care system, and has reported two coronavirus cases, including one death.

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