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Fears mount as Syria reports first coronavirus case

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Authorities step up lockdown efforts in war-torn country after 20-year-old woman tested positive.

Health officials in war-battered Syria have announced the first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as authorities in the country prepare to halt all public transportation in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Health Minister Nizar Yazji told a news conference in the capital Damascus on Sunday that “necessary measures” had been taken to ensure that the patient, a 20-year-old woman who had come from abroad, was quarantined for 14 days.

 

Yazji said the patient did not exhibit all of the symptoms upon arrival, but was identified by a "detection team" responsible for scanning incoming travellers, state news agency Sana reported.

A ban on public transport as well as on private transport services will come into effect on Monday night, the agency reported. A similar ban on transportation between various cities and provinces will come into effect on Tuesday night.

Earlier, the government shut down schools, parks, restaurants and various public institutions, and called off army conscription.

Syria's healthcare system, among other infrastructure, has been ravaged by nine years of war.

Flights from Iran

On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a prisoner amnesty, according to state media, which said it was a move to relieve congestion that risked the spread of the virus.

Bakeries across the country would no longer open and bread would be home-delivered, state media said.

Medics say the country is also vulnerable with thousands of Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside Assad's forces, who maintain a strong presence in Syria's big cities and have their headquarters in the Damascus Shia suburb of Set Zaynab.

Thousands of Shia pilgrims from Iran also visit Damascus.

Iran, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic outside China, is Syria's main regional ally and operates military and civilian flights that bring the militia fighters into the country.

Iran's Mahan Air still has regular flights from Tehran to Damascus, according to Western diplomats tracking Syria, even though other Syrian flights have been suspended.

Iranian-backed militias also still enter Syria using the al-Bukamal border crossing with Iraq, where the virus is spreading, according to local residents and Western intelligence sources.

Displacement camps

The army's general command announced on Saturday it had raised the level of preparedness in military hospitals and gave orders to minimise gatherings, including military sports activities or any that take place in closed areas.

UN officials and humanitarian workers, meanwhile, fear a large outbreak in Syria could be particularly catastrophic.

Medics in the opposition-controlled northwestern region - the last rebel-held bastion in the country - also fear the coronavirus could spread quickly in crowded camps for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who fled months of relentless Russian-backed bombing of rebel-held areas.

Since December last year, and up until earlier this month, an escalation in fighting between Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, and the Turkish-backed opposition in the region displaced nearly one million people, many of whom amassed in the already overcrowded camps near the Turkey-Syria border.

Aid agencies have been unable to respond to the overwhelming surge of new arrivals at the camps, which has forced many to share their tents throughout the harsh winter months, while others camped under trees or in their vehicles.

A campaign to help spread awareness among the camp’s residents kicked off last week but limited access to running water, pharmacies and medical facilities mean displacement camps are more susceptible to the spread of the highly infectious virus.

The area is especially vulnerable as most hospitals and medical facilities have been bombed, rendering them out of order.

The UN has previously accused Syrian government ally Russia of deliberately hitting civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, acts that could amount to war crimes.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/fears-mount-syria-reports-coronavirus-case-200323072420219.html

 

Fear, anxiety as besieged Gaza confirms first 2 coronavirus cases

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Authorities in the coastal enclave have shut restaurants and cafes, while Friday prayers have also been suspended.

Palestinian officials have announced the first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Deputy Health Minister Youssef Abulreesh said late on Saturday the two Palestinian patients had returned from Pakistan via Gaza's Rafah border with neighbouring Egypt on Thursday.

The pair exhibited symptoms of the illness, which include a dry cough and high fever, Abulreesh told a news conference.

He added that the two were placed in quarantine upon arrival and are now in a field hospital in the border town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Abulreesh urged Gaza's nearly two million residents to take precautionary measures and to practise social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the potential spread of the virus.

Authorities in Gaza, which is run by the Hamas group, have decided to shut down the enclave's restaurants, cafes and reception halls. Friday prayers at mosques have also been suspended until further notice.

Meanwhile, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli military unit that is responsible for civilian matters in the occupied territories, announced that effective on Sunday, all crossings into Israel from Gaza and the occupied West Bank have been closed.

"Merchants, workers and other permit holders will not be permitted to enter from the crossings until further notice," COGAT said on its Twitter page, adding that some exceptions may apply to nurses and health workers, as well as exceptional medical cases.

Palestinians say permits to cross are hard to obtain, even for those with a medical or humanitarian reason, as each application is accompanied by a long logistical process, usually under the pretext of security clearance.

'We are very afraid'

On March 15, authorities in Gaza introduced measures to place incoming residents in quarantine centres.

To date, there are 20 designated facilities in Gaza's south, including schools, hotels and medical facilities, housing more than 1,200 people, according to a report released on Saturday by the Palestinian Authority's health ministry.

The quarantine centres are located in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and the southern city of Khan Younis. According to the report, at least 2,000 other returnees have been self-isolating in their homes, prior to when the mandatory quarantine procedures were implemented last week.

Um Mohammed Khalil is among those who are being quarantined in Rafah.

After returning from a short visit to Egypt last week, the 49-year-old was among 50 other people who were bussed to a school with "poor hygiene standards", where single rooms are shared by seven people.

The news of the first two positive cases sparked fear and anxiety among those quarantined in the school, Khalil told Al Jazeera.

"We were afraid that among us would be infected people, especially as we have been calling for an improvement in the quarantine conditions," she said.

"Our families have been in contact with us since this morning, and they are also seriously concerned. Gaza has endured many wars and crises, but how can it tolerate this pandemic?" she said. "We are very afraid".

Gaza under siege

Gaza's healthcare system is in shambles and its war-battered residents are especially vulnerable as they have lived under an Israeli-Egyptian siege for nearly 13 years.

The air, land and sea blockade has restricted the entry of essential resources such as healthcare equipment, medication and building materials, among others.

Since 2007, Gaza has seen three Israeli assaults that have resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and a power plant.

Gaza's homes, offices and hospitals receive an average of four to six hours of electricity per day.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza's healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak, given that the strip's hospitals are overstretched and under-sourced.

Ayman al-Halabi, a doctor at the laboratories run by Gaza's health ministry, is among a team of physicians responsible for testing incoming samples.

"The routine from two weeks ago was to gather samples from returnees at the Rafah border, which undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test - the test of choice utilised to diagnose COVID-19," al-Halabi told Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of other samples of people who may have come into contact with the two first patients are now being tested, al-Halabi said.

Citing Gaza's limited resources, al-Halabi said: "Facing this pandemic is going to be extremely challenging.

"If the biggest and most powerful countries are struggling, how is Gaza supposed to cope?"

'End of the world'

Globally, more than 300,000 people have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. More than 13,000 people have died from the virus, while some 92,000 have recovered.

With the looming threat of an outbreak, many say the virus might be the last straw for Gaza's weary residents.

Amira al-Dremly knew that it would only be a matter of time until the virus made its way to Gaza.

But hearing the news that two had tested positive on Saturday still felt like "the end of the world", al-Dremly told Al Jazeera.

"The biggest fear is that the available resources in Gaza are not enough to act as a temporary solution [to the spread of the virus]," the 34-year-old said.

"I'm very afraid for my children. I am taking measures to educate them about sterilisation and have prevented them from leaving the house," the mother of four said.

"But the psychological effects are difficult, my family and everyone around me are very confused by this news," she added.

Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, is home to some of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps, and al-Dremly noted that social distancing is something that is "easier said than done".

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS


https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/gaza-confirms-coronavirus-cases-ongoing-blockade-200322072036366.html

 

Iran leader refuses US help; cites coronavirus conspiracy theory

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei alleges virus 'is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians'.

Iran's supreme leader refused American assistance to fight the new coronavirus citing a conspiracy theory claiming it could be man-made by the United States government.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments came on Sunday as Iran faces crushing US sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets.

While Iranian officials in recent days have increasingly criticised those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead echoed Chinese officials about the possible origin of the coronavirus.

"I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?" Khamenei said. "Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more."

He also alleged the virus "is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means".

"You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person," Khamenei said.

US response

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Ayatollah Khamenei's remarks on Monday, saying his "lies" were endangering people's lives.

Calling COVID-19 the "Wuhan virus", Pompeo said Khamenei's "fabrications are dangerous and they put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk".

The statement also mentioned "failed" steps taken by Iran to counter the virus as "facts that Iran regime would like to keep from the world".

The US secretary of state accused Iran of "putting millions of lives at risk and infecting its people with running 55 flights between Tehran and China in February, ignoring repeated warnings from its own health officials, and denying its first death from the coronavirus for at least nine days".

"He works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritises ideology over the Iranian people," Pompeo said of Ayatollah Khamenei.

'Be transparent'

There is no scientific proof offered anywhere in the world to support Khamenei's claims.

However, his comments come after Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted earlier this month it "might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe[s] us an explanation!"

Lijian likewise offered no evidence to support his claim, which saw the US State Department summon China's ambassador to complain. A Chinese state newspaper tweeted on Sunday another allegation trying to link the virus to Italy, similarly hard-hit by the outbreak.

Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the disease were detected in December.

In recent days, the Trump administration has increasingly referred to the virus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus, while the World Health Organization (WHO) used the term COVID-19 to describe the illness the virus causes.

A US senator from Arkansas has trafficked in the conspiracy theory it was a man-made Chinese bioweapon. Relations with China and the US have been tense under President Donald Trump amid a trade war between the nations.

Ayatollah Khamenei continued to berate the US on Sunday. "No one trusts you. You are capable of bringing into our country a drug that will keep the virus alive and prevent its eradication.

"The American leaders are liars, manipulators, impudent and greedy ... They are charlatans," he said, also labelling them "absolutely ruthless".

'Improbable'

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.

An article published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Medicine dismissed the idea the virus was man-made. Its authors said it was "improbable" that the virus "emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus".

Khamenei made the comments in a speech in Tehran broadcast live on Sunday across Iran marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and the Islamic commemoration known as Isra and Miraj. He had called off his usual speech at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad over the virus outbreak.

His comments come as Iran has reported more than 21,600 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus amid 1,685 reported deaths, according to government figures released Sunday. Experts still fear Iran may be underreporting its cases.

'Maximum pressure'

Across the Middle East, Iran represents eight of 10 cases of the virus and those leaving the Islamic Republic have carried it to other countries.

Iranian officials have criticised US offers of aid during the virus crisis as being disingenuous.

They have accused the Trump administration of wanting to capitalise on its "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018.

US sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to access the global market.

On Sunday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan echoed the call on the US to lift its sanctions.

"I want to appeal to President Trump on humanitarian grounds to lift the sanctions against Iran till the COVID-19 pandemic is over," Khan said in a tweet.

"The people of Iran are facing untold suffering as sanctions are crippling Iran's efforts to fight COVID-19. Humanity must unite to fight this pandemic," he said.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/iran-leader-refuses-cites-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-200322145122752.html

   
 
   

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