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Passengers wearing protective masks disembark from a plane upon their arrival at Najaf airport, Iraq, from Iran. Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai: From declarations of ‘red alerts’ to closing of land borders, and from cancellations of film festivals to banning of football matches, the coronavirus outbreak continued to spread more havoc and misery in regions as far apart as Italy and South Korea. In the past week or so, the virus has truly emerged as a global pandemic, but with most cases showing an epidemiological link to China.

China reported a total of 76,936 cases of the COVID-19, as the coronavirus is officially known, including 2,442 deaths. The death toll was up by 97 from the previous day. Outside China, the situation became most dire in Iran in terms of deaths, with the toll now standing at eight in the country. With 15 new cases, the number of those infected now stands at 43 in Iran.

Iran worst hit in Middle East

Afghanistan on Sunday suspended air and ground travel to Iran, while Iraq extended an entry ban for any non-Iraqis coming from Iran. Turkey also said it will close its border with Iran as a precautionary measure, and closed all highways and railways as of 5pm on Sunday. Kuwait airlifted 900 citizens from Iran, and stopped all flights to and from the country. Jordan said on Sunday it would bar entry to citizens of China, Iran and South Korea and other foreigners travelling from those countries. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Balochistan province declared emergency in areas close to Pakistan-Iran border. Pakistan has also announced it will temporarily shut its Taftan border with Iran.

Armenia also announced the closue of its border with the country. It would also suspend flights, Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian announced on Sunday.

"Iran-Armenia air links and the entry of people into Armenia via the Meghri checkpoint", the only border crossing between the nations, "will be suspended", he said in a post on Twitter, adding that the measure was set to last two weeks.

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Medical staff check passengers arriving from Iran at Najaf airport in Iraq. Image Credit: AP

Lebanese blame Iran

The spread of the virus in the Middle East took a dark turn with some in Lebanon pointing the finger squarely at Iran, which is the benefactor of the country’s powerful Hezbollah militant group. This came as Lebanon’s first coronavirus case turned out to be from a flight from the Iranian city of Qom. Lebanese who support the current, Iran-backed administration have maintained a low profile, but some supporters of rival groups blame Iran for the introduction of the virus into the country.

South Korean pilgrims cause panic in Holy Land

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South Korean tourists in Tel Aviv. Image Credit: AP

South Korea took the extreme step of declaring a “red alert” on Sunday after a surge in coronavirus infections and a death toll of six. South Korean visitors have also caused alarm in occupied Jerusalem, with both the Israeli occupation regime and Palestinian authorities trying to calm fears about a possible local outbreak of the coronavirus after learning that South Korean pilgrims who had toured some of the holy land’s most popular sites were later found to be carrying the virus. The nine tourists, who tested positive for coronavirus after returning to South Korea, earlier this month visited holy sites including Occupied Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cave of the Patriarchs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to Israel’s Health Ministry. The the church group’s itinerary has been published, and an “epidemiological investigation” is being carried out to see if any locals have been affected. It ordered anyone who was in close contact with the group to report it to the ministry and to stay at home for 14 days while monitoring their health.

Italy cancels last 2 days of Venice festival

Italy tried on Sunday to contain the biggest outbreak of coronavirus in Europe, sealing off the worst affected towns and banning public gatherings in much of the north as the number of those infected jumped above 100.

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An Italian policeman stands next to a masked carnival reveller in Venice.

Authorities in the wealthy regions of Lombardy and Veneto, which are the focal point of the flare-up, ordered schools and universities to close for at least a week, shut museums and cinemas and called off the last two days of the Venice Carnival. The virus fear has also hit sporting events, as four Serie A football matches were postponed on Sunday, with Inter Milan’s Europa League game next week also in doubt.

Cruise ship troubles

Three separate cruise ships arrived in Wuhan to house medical workers for the city’s stretched health care system. This came as Japan’s NHK reported cases had risen to 135 - not including the cases linked to the Diamond Princess, where at least 650 people who travelled aboard the ship are now confirmed cases. Three people on the Diamond Princess have died so far.

The Diamond Princess outbreak alone has had a global impact. At least 18 Americans and seven Australians have tested positive for the virus after returning to their home countries, and medical authorities in both countries say they expect to find more cases as more tests are carried out. Twelve Indian crew members have so far been confirmed as cases aboard the ship, India’s NDTV reported on Sunday.

Trump fury at return of infected Americans

Meanwhile, it has emerged that US President Donald Trump was infuriated that 14 US citizens who had tested positive for coronavirus were permitted to return this week to the United States, said two senior administration officials. The decision took the president, a self-declared “germophobe”, by surprise.

Officials at the State Department decided to bring back the citizens, who had been quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, after consulting with a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services. But officials at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention objected, concerned that the passengers, among hundreds of Americans being evacuated from the ship, could spread the virus.

WHO voices concerns

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was concerned about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link to China, although the total number of cases outside China remains relatively small, its director general said on Saturday. Outside China, there have been more than 1,200 cases in 26 countries, the WHO said. That includes one confirmed case on the African continent, in Egypt.

G20 policies to limit impact of coronavirus

Finance officials from the Group of 20 major economies agreed on Sunday to continue monitoring the risk from the coronavirus outbreak and to adopt appropriate policies to limit the global economic impact, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister said. The two-day gathering in Riyadh was dominated by growing concern over the widening fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, with the International Monetary Fund predicting it would shave 0.1 percentage point off global growth.

-With inputs from agencies