Virus toll in Iran climbs as lockdowns deepen across Mideast


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran reported another 129 fatalities from the new coronavirus on Monday, the largest one-day rise in deaths since it began battling the Middle East’s worst outbreak, which has claimed more than 850 lives and infected a number of senior officials in the country.

A man with a motorcycle helmet covers his face with a mask, as he watches municipal policemen order people to leave the corniche, or waterfront promenade, along the Mediterranean Sea, as the country’s top security council and the government were meeting over the spread of coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, March 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Businesses in Iran’s capital remained open, however, even as other countries in the region moved toward full lockdowns, with Lebanon largely shutting down and Iraqis racing to prepare for a curfew set to begin later this week.

The divergent approaches adopted by local authorities reflect continued uncertainty over how to slow the spread of a virus that has infected around 170,000 people worldwide and caused more than 6,500 deaths. 

Some have opted for an even more aggressive response. Israel, where the number of confirmed cases has more than tripled to 344 in recent days, has authorized the use of phone-snooping technology long used against Palestinian militants to track coronavirus patients. Such practices will spark renewed debate over privacy issues as countries around the world confront the pandemic.

Most people experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Iraq announced a weeklong curfew late Sunday. People raced to supermarkets and swiftly emptied shelves, while others stocked up on cooking fuel. The curfew, which is set to begin late Tuesday, includes the suspension of all flights from Baghdad’s international airport.

Iraq’s Health Ministry has reported 124 cases of coronavirus and nine deaths.

In Lebanon, where the government ordered a lockdown, traffic was thin and some streets were completely empty on Monday, the start of the working week. Restaurants, cafes and bars have been closed since last week and most private businesses were shuttered Monday.

Beirut’s waterfront promenade, along the Mediterranean Sea, is mostly empty after municipal policemen ordered people to leave, as the country’s top security council and the government were meeting over the spread of the new coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, March 15, 2020. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Police asked shop owners to close in line with the government orders and moved to clear the few remaining people from Beirut’s seaside corniche. Pharmacies, bakeries and other food sellers were allowed to stay open. The small country has reported 99 cases and three deaths.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have been largely in disarray since anti-government protests broke out last year, and Lebanon was mired in its worst financial crisis in years even before the pandemic began.

One of the worst outbreaks in the world has unfolded in Iran, which has close ties to both Iraq and Lebanon. Authorities there have reported 14,991 confirmed cases and 853 deaths. Monday’s jump in fatalities was the largest one-day rise since the epidemic began. The real numbers may be even higher, as some have questioned the government’s reporting.

Many Iranians have dismissed fears about the virus and advice from public health officials to avoid social contact. Restaurants and cafes have remained open, though business has diminished.

A member of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint or dismiss the country’s supreme leader, died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported Monday.

Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei, 78, is the latest of several Iranian officials to have died. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials have caught the virus, compounding fears about Iran’s response to the pandemic.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 80 years old and has been in power since 1989, wore disposable gloves at a recent public event, apparently as a precaution. 

The official leading Iran’s response to the virus on Sunday expressed concerns that health facilities could be overwhelmed if the rate of new cases continues to climb.

Mideast stock markets tumbled Monday, with the Dubai Financial Market closing down 6.14% and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange down 7.83%. Both have closed their trading floors over fears about the virus. Egypt’s benchmark index, the EGX 30, dropped by over 7%, extending a 32% plunge since the beginning of the year.

Egypt, with more than 120 confirmed cases and two deaths, suspended all flights in and out of the country starting Thursday and lasting until the end of the month.

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial announced Monday that its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony would be held this year without an audience. The ceremony typically draws the country’s top leadership, foreign dignitaries and elderly Holocaust survivors. The ceremony is scheduled for April 20.

Later on Monday, Israel will swear in its new Knesset, or parliament, after elections earlier this month. The 120 members will take the oath of office in groups of three, in keeping with bans on large gatherings. 

Authorities at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, meanwhile, asked visitors to refrain from kissing the stones of the wall. The sprawling plaza has remained open for prayers, but officials have curbed access to enclosed areas.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said anyone entering the territory would be placed in quarantine for 14 days. The Palestinians have reported nearly 40 cases, most linked to an outbreak in the town of Bethlehem. 

In Dubai, authorities announced that all bars and pubs would be closed through the end of the month and ordered people not to hold weddings or parties in their homes. Community pools were also locked down.

In Saudi Arabia, the capital and other cities announced the closure of malls, cafes and parks, allowing only grocery stores and pharmacies to stay open and limiting restaurants to delivery.

The Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, meanwhile, reported its first death from the virus. It has reported 221 confirmed cases.

The Associated Press