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The Middle East at war with coronavirus: Top stories from 22 March

A daily brief on Middle East's coronavirus pandemic [TNA]

Date of publication: 22 March, 2020

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Gaza authorities confirm first two COVID-19 cases, Iraq goes on nation-wide lockdown, Turkey gets serious with the elderly and the UAE bans print media in today's Coronavirus roundup.
Here are 6 takeaways from coronavirus in the Middle East on Sunday.

Gaza authorities confirm first two COVID-19 cases

Authorities in Gaza confirmed the first two cases of novel coronavirus on Sunday, identifying the individuals as Palestinians who had travelled to Pakistan and were held in quarantine on their return.

The United Nations has warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could be disastrous, given the high poverty rates and weak health system in the coastal strip under Israeli blockade since 2007. 

But Gaza's health ministry said the two people who tested positive had been held in quarantine since their return from Pakistan on Thursday and did not interact with the wider population.

"These two cases were recorded among those who returned to Gaza ... (and) did not mix with the residents of the Gaza Strip," deputy health minister Yousef Abu Al-Reesh told reporters. 

The sick, identified as two men, were in stable condition, the health ministry said.

Authorities in Gaza have said that more than 2,700 Palestinians are in home-isolation, mostly people who had returned from Egypt.

Read also: Special coverage: How many coronavirus cases are there in the Middle East?

Gaza has only 60 intensive care (ICU) beds for its two million people and not all are operational due to staff shortages, he said. 

In response to the pandemic, Israel has announced an increased supply of medical equipment to Gaza, including hundreds of COVID-19 test kits transferred this week.

Hamas authorities are also working to build up to 1,000 new isolation rooms near the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

Iraq goes on lockdown until March 28

Iraq on Sunday imposed a total nationwide lockdown until March 28 to fight the novel coronavirus, as the number of cases grew and the death toll climbed to 20.

Most of Iraq's 18 provinces had so far imposed their own local curfews but the new measures would include the whole of the country, according to a new decision by the government's crisis cell.

Schools, universities and other gathering places would remain closed, as would the country's multiple international airports.

Authorities have struggled to enforce previous curfews.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims turned out in Baghdad and other cities in the south of the country to commemorate the death of a revered Muslim imam. 

And Moqtada Sadr, a populist cleric with a cult-like following, has continued to hold mass prayers in his hometown of Kufa south of Baghdad and in the capital's densely-populated Sadr City. 

Health Minister Jaafar Allawi sent Sadr a personal letter in a bid to convince him to call off his weekly prayers, which present an enormous contamination risk.

Allawi has expressed fears that a wider outbreak would overwhelm the country's health system, which already faces shortages in equipment, medicine and staff after decades of conflict and little investment by national authorities.

Turkey bars elderly from leaving homes

Turkey has barred citizens over 65 from leaving their homes in a bid to control the spread of the novel coronavirus after the country's death toll surged to 21.

"As of midnight today, the citizens aged 65 and over and also people who suffer from chronic illnesses are restricted to go out of their homes and to walk in open areas such as parks, gardens," the interior ministry said in a statement.

The curbs on movement mark the latest measures geared at preventing the virus' spread among Turkey's elderly population.

 
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Local media reports suggest that many elderly citizens have ignored government advice to stay at home to avoid spreading the new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. Deaths from the disease occur overwhelmingly in people over 70 and those with underlying health conditions.

On Friday, local municipalities across the country ripped park benches from the ground to prevent older citizens from congregating together.

UAE ban on print

The UAE National Media Council has decided to temporarily stop the distribution of all print newspapers, magazines and marketing material with effect from March 24, as new coronavirus cases rock the country.

The ban includes the distribution of all printed materials, advertisements in residential complexes as well as restaurants, hotels, health centres and clinics, as well as waiting halls in public and private sector service centres.

The ban does not apply to awareness publications approved by relevant health authorities, official news agency WAM reported.

Regular subscribers of the publications and large outlets in shopping centres are exempted from this, provided all the health and safety precautions are followed.

This is part of the preventive measures taken to contain the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Several people touching the same printed material has the potential to disseminate the virus.

The National Media Council has stressed that the daily newspapers in the country will continue to play their crucial role in publishing news stories and carrying discussions on issues of national importance across their multiple platforms.

The ban on print media in the UAE on Sunday came as the country's energy and industry ministry activated a remote work system for all its services, as part of efforts to contain the virus.

Iran's rising death toll

Iranian authorities on Sunday confirmed the death toll from the deadly coronavirus increased to 1,685 with 129 deaths in the past 24 hours.

The health ministry's spokesman told state TV that the total number of infected people in Iran had reached 21,638.

"There were 1,028 new confirmed infected cases in the past 24 hours ... and 7,913 people have recovered," said Kianush Jahanpur.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases, and has been widely criticised for its slow response.

The updated death toll came as Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei slammed a US offer to assist the Islamic Republic with its deadly coronavirus outbreak as "strange".

"Several times Americans have offered to help Iran to contain the virus. Aside from the fact that there are suspicions about this virus being created by America ... their offer is strange since they face shortages in their fight against the virus," said Khamenei in a televised speech.

"Iran has the capability to overcome any kind of crisis, including coronavirus outbreak."

Tunisia allocates funds to tackle economic impact of virus

Tunisian authorities allocated 2.5 billion dinars ($850 million) to tackle the economic and social impact of the virus, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh confirmed.

The fund will help the government delay tax debts, postpone taxes on small- and medium-sized businesses, delay repayment of low-income employee loans and provide financial assistance to poor families, Reuters reported.

It came after the president on Friday ordered a general lockdown that limited citizens' free movement in the country, similar to measures being taken around the world.

"All of Tunisia is united in this dangerous war. The war has a cost and the exceptional decisions that we announced have a cost, but we have no choice," Fakhfakh said in speech.

So far, Tunisia has confirmed 60 cases of the novel coronavirus, and the country is bracing for a hit on its tourism sector, which accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.

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