Dubai: A spike in cases in the Gulf Arab states helped push infections in the Middle East for the new coronavirus past 10,000 cases on Thursday, with most infected people either in Iran or having recently traveled there.
Iran has asked for an emergency $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to combat the outbreak there, which has killed more than 360 people and infected some 9,000 people in the Islamic Republic. Iran's Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati said Thursday he made the request last week in a letter to IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva. The international lender has said it stands ready to support countries through a Rapid Financial Instrument.
Iran's economy has been battered by U.S. sanctions, which have choked Tehran's ability to sell its oil. The recent outbreak of the virus there has compounded its economic woes, with all of Iran's neighbors closing their borders to Iranians and multiple nations cutting travel links with Iran, including shipping in some cases, which is affecting imports, as well.
Countries in the region have imposed their own varying levels of travel restrictions, from wholesale halting of all commercial flights in Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia banning travel to 39 countries.
Regional stock markets were also down, reflecting investor concerns and nerves felt globally as oil prices plunge and tourism revenue is eroded by the virus. The World Health Organization on Wednesday officially designated the outbreak a "pandemic."
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 and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
Because the there is still no vaccine for the infectious disease, countries are implementing tough measures to restrict its spread, as well as the impact an outbreak could have on emergency rooms and intensive care units.
Multiple top officials in Iran _ from its senior vice president to Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members, health workers and health ministry officials _ have contracted the virus. Some of those officials have died.
There are concerns that the number of infections across Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, which is struggling to contain or manage its spread. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over.
A third Lebanese man died from the coronavirus, state-run National News Agency said Thursday. It said the man's immune system was impaired because he had cancer. Local media reported the man was 79 years old and that the virus was transmitted to him from the first man who had died in Lebanon earlier this week.
Outside of Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Middle East. Iran has one of the world's worst death tolls outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
This week, Qatar reported a massive jump in cases of the new coronavirus late Wednesday with 262 now infected. The more than 200 new cases had been found in quarantine. In the Gulf Arab island nation of Bahrain, confirmed cases also rose by nearly 70% this week to 189 confirmed cases, after some 77 new cases were confirmed on a returning flight of Bahrainis from Iran.
Kuwait and Saudi
Kuwait on Thursday reported eight new coronavirus infections, taking its total to 80, as the country started a two-week public holiday announced by the government as part of measures to contain the spread of infections.
Authorities on Wednesday also announced a ban on all commercial passenger flights to and from the country starting Friday. Its stock market was shut on Thursday.
Trade Minister Khalid Al Roudan, in an audio recording shared by the ministry, reassured citizens concerned about the availability of essential goods.
"There is no need for all this panic because shipping lanes are still open and cargo flights continue. There are sufficient strategic food stockpiles for several months," he said.
The country has over 70 confirmed cases of the new virus.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, reported seven more cases late Wednesday, bringing the country's total number of cases to 67.
In the southern tourist-driven city of Luxor, 70 Egyptian workers and guides remained in quarantine on a Nile cruise ship called the Asara. Earlier this week, 83 foreign tourists left quarantine on the ship and flew home week after testing negative for the virus.
Saudi Arabia, which had locked down its eastern Qatif region earlier this week, announced 24 new cases overnight, bringing its total to 45. It halted flights to the EU and 12 other countries, extending an earlier ban on 19 countries, including neighbouring Arab states, state media said on Thursday.
Saudi citizens and residents in the affected jurisdictions have 72 hours to return to the kingdom, state news agency SPA said, citing an official source at the Interior Ministry.
Passenger traffic through all land crossings with Jordan was also suspended. Commercial and cargo traffic continued.
No Gulf Arab state has so far reported a coronavirus death.
Many of the recorded infections are linked to travel to Iran, the epicentre of the disease in the Middle East.
Bahrain on Wednesday reported 77 new infections among citizens evacuated by plane from Iran. A second government-chartered repatriation flight is scheduled for Thursday.
Saudi Arabia's latest flight ban includes Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia.
Millions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia come from many of those countries. The decision excludes health workers in the kingdom from the Philippines and India as well as evacuation, shipping and trade trips, SPA said.
The kingdom has said it will impose a fine of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) on people who do not disclose health information and travel details at entry points.
Other preventive measures include locking down the oil-producing region of Qatif, where many of its cases are centred; suspending the Umrah pilgrimage; closing schools and cinemas nationwide; cancelling conferences and sporting events; and postponing a G20 ministerial meeting scheduled for next week.