MENA braces for coronavirus threat

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Middle East countries with reported infections include Iran, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria.

Tuesday 25/02/2020

Kuwaiti women wear protective masks as they sit in a restaurant inside the Mubarakiya Market in Kuwait City on February 24. (AP)

TUNIS - MENA countries are on high alert for the new coronavirus as the declared pandemic continues to spread across the region.

While the virus has begun slowing in China, where it originated, cases are increasing in the MENA region, particularly Iran which has reported 61 cases and 15 deaths, the biggest cluster outside of southeast Asia.  

Other Middle East countries with reported infections include the UAE, with 13 cases, Kuwait with 8 cases, Bahrain with 17, Oman and Iraq with 5, and Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria with 1.

Gulf states began limiting or cancelling flights to Iran as concerns grew the virus was spreading more quickly than officials disclosed. On February 25, Iran’s deputy health minister himself announced he had tested positive for the virus. He urged fellow citizens in a video message to be careful as the illness “does not discriminate,” but vowed that the country would emerge “victorious” against the virus in the coming weeks.

However, the Islamic Republic’s decision not to quarantine the city of Qom, the centre of the outbreak that is also a Shia holy pilgrimage site, has amplified concerns it could spiral out of control. Iranian Parliament Member Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani accused the government of downplaying the number of cases and pleaded for the health ministry to impose a quarantine. “Until last night, around 50 people died of coronavirus in Qom,” said Amirabadi. “Unfortunately, it is three weeks that corona has affected Qom but it was announced with a delay [and] there is a shortage of prevention equipment.”

North Africa is also bracing for the virus as cases mount in nearby Italy. Tunisia, which lays just south of the Mediterannean Sea and shares close ties with Rome, announced it was considering limiting flights to the European country February 24, while Mauritania blocked some visitors from southern Italy from entering over virus concerns.

Health specialists say that open exchange of information and good infections control practices are critical to controlling the outbreak, but that this would be more difficult if it spreads widely in countries without good health infrastructure such as Syria and Iraq.

““The major issue we have been worrying about is coronavirus getting into the Syrian and Iraqi refugee population, given the conditions in which they live,” Dr Adam Coutts, a specialist on public health in the Middle East at Cambridge University, told The Guardian. “Overcrowded with no sanitation, plus a lack of access to healthcare.”

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A traveller wears a mask at the Dubai International Airport, after the UAE's Ministry of Health and Community Prevention confirmed the country's first case of coronavirus, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 29. (Reuters)

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