Middle East Gears Up to Combat Deadly Virus

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As disease gains traction, region steps up restrictions on travel

In an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Mideast, governments have put in place significant measures designed to halt transmission of the disease. Excluding Iran, one of the worst-hit countries in the world, a few hundred people in the region have contracted the COVID-19 virus.

The United Arab Emirates was the first Gulf state to report the novel coronavirus, on January 29, as four Chinese tourists fell ill. This was followed by cases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon.

On Monday, the Lebanese Health Ministry said the virus had spread beyond the containment stage. This came after authorities announced that the closure of educational institutions would be extended until March 14.

On Tuesday, the number of cases in the Land of the Cedars rose to 52.

“Today Lebanon recorded the first death of a person infected with the virus; he came from Egypt a few days ago, and died in the hospital,” Rabee Damaj, a journalist based in Dubai and Beirut, told The Media Line. Damaj opined that the measures taken by the government were not nearly enough, but, he added, “Yesterday, a medical delegation went and tested passengers on an airplane coming from Italy, which constitutes the first serious move.”

He said how people in different countries dealt with the virus reflected how seriously they took their fellow citizens’ safety, “especially where the economy is bad.”

“In Lebanon, the price of the medical supplies that help prevent the virus has jumped; people started making money out of the situation. Whereas in Dubai, the prices went down, to encourage people to buy the supplies and protect themselves,” Damaj said.

He expressed heavy criticism of the fact that Iranian airplanes arrived in Lebanon almost every day, even though the Islamic Republic has acknowledged there are more than 7,000 cases of the virus there. “It represents political malpractice at the expense of the people, where Iran is convinced it can eliminate the virus through prayer. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have banned flight events between each other, and suspended the entry of umrah pilgrims [wishing to visit Mecca].”

In the United Arab Emirates, 14 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded, bringing the total to 59, including 12 people who have recovered.

Damaj further said Abu Dhabi had established a preventative health center within the emirate’s Humanitarian City complex to provide healthcare for COVID-19 patients from all over the world, including persons of various nationalities evacuated from Hubei Province in China.

The Saudi Health Ministry announced four new cases of the virus on Monday, increasing the total to 15, with one person having recovered. Saudi Arabia has suspended all travel to and from 14 countries, including Egypt. In addition, no persons will be allowed to enter the kingdom through the ports of Al-Omari and Al-Mudora unless they are citizens of Gulf states, until Monday afternoon. The ports handle passenger traffic between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

On February 2, Saudi Arabia suspended the entry of umrah pilgrims to the kingdom. Umrah is the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that, in contrast to the hajj, can be undertaken at any time of the year.

Suliman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, told The Media Line that an interministerial emergency committee, led by the Health Ministry, had taken several steps to contain the virus and provide recommendations for the national leadership.

“It started with stopping umrah pilgrimage and visits, as well as the movement of Saudis and Gulf nationals, and banning trips to about 15 countries where the disease is endemic or widespread, with complete suspension of educational institutions and the cancellation of all activities that attract large gatherings, including banning Saudi sports events, holding soccer tournaments without an audience and canceling recreational events,” Ogaily said.

He added that the kingdom hosts more than 12 million foreign workers from some 150 nations around the world, including countries bordering China and near Iran and heavily affected European countries. “More than half a million passengers have been tested testing at entry points. In addition, 2,032 people are in home isolation, and 468 people are in quarantine,” he said.

The Saudi Council of Ministers said Tuesday that the precautionary measures would continue to be expanded, Ogaily said.

Egypt authorities said 45 cases of COVID-19 were identified on a Nile cruise ship after the passengers had been exposed to an infected Taiwanese tourist. That brings the total cases in the country to 55, with one death and one person having recovered from the virus.

On Monday, the Egyptian prime minister said all activities that involve large gatherings would be suspended until further notice. In addition, the interior ministry suspended all prison visits for a period of 10 days beginning on Tuesday.

The Media Line contacted several Egyptian analysts; all declined to comment on the issue because of the sensitivity of the matter and referred this reporter to the government’s official statements.

Seventy-five people have contracted the coronavirus in Israel, including three people who have recovered, while the Palestinian Authority has 29 cases: 28 in Bethlehem and one in Tulkarem. Israel has placed Bethlehem under closure since March 5 in an effort to contain the virus.

Israel on Monday evening ordered a 14-day home or hotel quarantine for all new arrivals to the countries, effective immediately for citizens and after 72 hours for foreigners.

Qatar has provided urgent assistance to the Palestinian people in the form of medical equipment valued at $10 million, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

Shawqi Sabha, the head of the Palestinian Doctors’ Union, told The Media Line that every possible measure was being taken. “However, what is really needed to limit the spread of the virus is for people to stay in their homes and only go out when it is absolutely necessary, especially since the Palestinian Authority has limited financial resources to deal with the crisis.”

He said that personal hygiene was extremely important, as was avoiding crowded places and any person with flu-like symptoms. “The problem here is that some people don’t show symptoms at first. The elderly are most at risk, as it targets their immune systems that are already weak.”

Sabha added, however, said that fear of coronavirus was exaggerated. Less than 4,000 have died from COVID-19 worldwide, whereas the conventional flu killed around 70,000 this year, Sabha said.

Bassam Manasser, a Jordanian political analyst and a former lawmaker, told The Media Line that officially there were no cases of the novel coronavirus in the kingdom, but that the precautionary measures taken were inadequate. People arriving from abroad were not being tested, and the hospitals’ infrastructure wasn’t prepared to deal with the deadly virus, he said. The safety measures taken in the West Bank were more advanced than those in Jordan, Manasser said.

“The quarantine locations aren’t suitable or prepared, which leads people to avoid coming forward to ask for help, and there are no preparations in terms of medical supplies. The same thing is the case in Syria and Egypt; I’m sure there are actually dozens of cases, but there is widespread negligence,” he said.

“Coronavirus revealed the faults of the Arab [political] systems,” Manasser said.

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