Middle East

Aid group says Mideast lockdowns hinder humanitarian efforts

CAIRO (AP) — An international aid group said Wednesday that closures aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic are preventing it from reaching 300,000 people in conflict zones across the Middle East, after authorities in Libya’s capital reported the first case in the war-torn country.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said it was unable to reach people in Syria, Yemen and the Gaza Strip, where authorities have imposed strict measures to halt the spread of the virus. All have fragile health care systems that could be overwhelmed by an outbreak, and only Yemen has yet to report any cases.

The group said virus lockdowns have also limited access to parts of Africa and Asia.

“While governments are taking tough and much-needed measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, millions of refugees and displaced people still depend on humanitarian assistance,” said Jan Egeland, head of the aid group.

“If supermarkets and pharmacies can remain operational during this crisis, then so should the delivery of humanitarian aid,” he added.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.

Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping measures to prevent its spread, including closing their borders, cancelling flights and in some cases imposing round-the-clock curfews that confine people to their homes.

The Israeli government on Wednesday approved new restrictions, including the closure of all synagogues. Authorities across the region have already shuttered major holy sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Many in Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox communities have defied restrictions on public gatherings, despite the pleas of rabbis and local authorities. That has led to tension with authorities and in at least one case, scuffles with police.

The order to close the synagogues, which goes into effect later Wednesday, reportedly came over the objection of Israel’s health minister, himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Twenty-nine percent of those who contracted the virus in Israel were infected in a synagogue or a yeshiva, according to an analysis by the National Information and Knowledge Center for the Fight Against the Coronavirus, which has been advising the Health Ministry.

The new restrictions in Israel will bar most people from venturing more that 100 meters (yards) from their homes. More than 2,100 Israelis have been infected, with 37 in serious condition. Five elderly Israelis with pre-existing medical conditions have died.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has ordered a full lockdown and halted travel between cities, towns and villages. Sixty cases have been reported in the West Bank and another two in Gaza.

Late Tuesday, hundreds of people in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, including dozens of armed men, defied the restrictions when they held a rally to celebrate the release of a Palestinian prisoner from an Israeli jail.

Also late Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority ordered all Palestinian workers to return to the West Bank from Israel, which had allowed around 65,000 to stay and work during the crisis.

Many Palestinians work in construction, agriculture and manufacturing in Israel. Wages in Israel are much higher than in the Palestinian territories, where decades of Israeli military rule has hindered economic development.

In Libya, officials say a 73-year-old man who entered from neighboring Tunisia on March 5 tested positive. The Libyan patient had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, according to Libya’s National Center for Disease Control, and was receiving medical treatment for his fever and cough in isolation at a Tripoli hospital.

Libya has been mired in chaos since the 2011 uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It is governed by rival authorities based in Tripoli and eastern Libya whose forces have been battling over the capital for nearly a year. Each is supported by a patchwork of armed groups.

On Tuesday, Tripoli’s suburbs came under heavy fire even as the United Nations appealed for a truce so authorities could focus on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

In neighboring Egypt, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly said a nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. would go into effect Wednesday. Egypt has confirmed 402 cases and 22 fatalities, including two senior military officers who were involved in efforts to disinfect public places.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the region, with over 27,000 confirmed cases and a death toll of at least 2,077, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said Wednesday.

Afghanistan imposed a lockdown on its western Herat province, which borders Iran and where the largest number of cases has been detected. Afghan authorities have reported 76 cases and two deaths. The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has reported four cases among soldiers who recently arrived in Kabul.

Afghanistan has been at war for decades, and more than half of its population lives in poverty.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, expanded its curfew hours in the cities of Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s holiest sites, as well as the capital, Riyadh. Residents now must remain inside their homes from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. The kingdom also banned travel in or out of the three governorates. Saudi Arabia has reported 676 cases.

Pakistan halted all domestic passenger flights beginning Thursday after reporting nearly 1,000 total cases, including seven deaths and 19 who recovered. It had previously suspended train service and international flights.

The outbreak in Pakistan was initially confined to people who had recently traveled to Iran but now appears to be circulating among those with no recent travel history.

Joseph Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem; Munir Ahmed in Islamabad; Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

Image: Medical workers oversee the disinfection of the streets to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Qamishli, Syria, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

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