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The Middle East at war with coronavirus: Top stories from 29 March

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

Date of publication: 29 March, 2020

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Syria and Qatar report their first coronavirus deaths, while Iranian authorities hunt for dozens of escaped prisoners in today's coronavirus roundup.
Here are five stories you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic and how it is affecting the Middle East and beyond on Saturday, March 29:

Saudi Arabia suspends flights, work indefinitely

Saudi Arabia has extended suspensions on international flights and workplace attendance indefinitely as part of its efforts to battle to coronavirus pandemic.

The rules also apply to domestic travel and both private and government employment sectors.

The kingdom's health ministry on Sunday said the death toll from the COVID-19 disease had doubled to eight as cumulative infections rose from 1,203 to 1,299 - the highest in the Gulf region.

Riyadh has imposed a nationwide partial curfew, barred entry and exit from the capital as well as Islam's two holiest cities Mecca and Medina and prohibited movement between all provinces.

The total cumulative confirmed infections stands at 1,203 in Saudi Arabia, 468 in the UAE, 457 in Bahrain, 235 in Kuwait and 152 in Oman, according to each country's official figures.

The official COVID-19 death toll across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stands at 11, including four in Bahrain and two in the UAE.

Qatar records first COVID-19 death

Qatar recorded its first death from the new coronavirus on Saturday, while confirmed infections rose by 28 to 590, the health ministry said.

A "57-year-old Bangladeshi national resident (in Qatar)... suffering from chronic diseases" died from the COVID-19 respiratory disease, the ministry said on Twitter. 

A woman in Syria also died on Sunday of the novel coronavirus, the country's health ministry said, marking the country's first officially declared death from COVID-19. 

"The woman died as soon as she was admitted to hospital," the health ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA

"After testing, it was found that she was a carrier of the coronavirus," the statement added, without providing additional details. 

In addition to the death, Syria has officially reported nine other coronavirus cases.

Fears are high that the virus could spread rapidly among the war-battered country's most vulnerable communities.

Iranian inmates escape from prison amid coronavirus chaos

Iranian security forces are searching for 54 escaped inmates following a prison break over which four guards were arrested, Iran's state news agency reported on Sunday.

According to state media, 74 inmates escaped from Saqqez city's prison on Friday, 20 of whom have so far either turned themselves in or been captured.

On March 19, 23 prisoners escaped from another jail in the western city of Khorramabad, the capital of Lorestan province, hours before the start of Iran's New Year celebrations, the IRNA agency said.

They reportedly escaped during the night while guards were making preparations for a New Year amnesty.

The escapees had been serving a maximum of one-year sentences, the agency said, denying that dangerous criminals were at large.

There were also prison riots in Hamedan and Tabriz provinces, and Aligoudarz city in Lorestan as authorities prevented escapes.

Hamedan's prosecutor told IRNA that the unrest there was "over the excuse of the coronavirus outbreak."

[Click to enlarge]

Egypt isolates villages, shuts hospitals to stop virus spread

Egypt has shuttered several hospitals and quarantined villages in an attempt to halt the rising infection rate in the most populous Arab state.

A Cairo hospital was closed for sterilisation late on Saturday after two COVID-19 cases were confirmed.

An official at Al-Salam hospital told AFP on Sunday: "We are currently disinfecting the hospital for the safety of everyone concerned. One patient had come in tested positive and a member of our staff was infected after".

He said no date was yet set for re-opening the facility.

Other hospitals have also been closed in the last week after recording cases of the virus, including the Alexandria University Hospital and Al-Shorouk hospital in Cairo.

Health ministry spokesperson Khaled Megahed also announced that villages in up to 10 governorates have been quarantined.

Egypt's health ministry has reported 576 COVID-19 cases, including 36 deaths, however observers say the number of infected people could be far higher.

UAE opens drive-through coronavirus test centre

The United Arab Emirates has launched a drive-through coronavirus testing facility as part of the Gulf state's efforts to fight the disease, the Abu Dhabi government's media office announced.

The facility, inaugurated by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, will provide safe screenings within five minutes, using state-of-the-art equipment and a highly-qualified medical team, it said. 

Read also: Lebanon hospitals 'discriminating against' undocumented workers seeking vital coronavirus testing

"A new drive-through testing facility for COVID-19 has launched ... to offer safe testing procedures," the office said on Twitter on Saturday.

According to official state news agency WAM, the facility can serve 600 people a day, with priority given to senior citizens, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses.

The government media office said people should book an appointment in advance. Tests "for the wider community for reassurance only" would cost 370 dirhams ($100), according to government advice on Twitter.

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