Riyadh: Middle Eastern states took a raft of preventive measures yesterday as the coronavirus continued to cause alarm across the region. There are now over 2,530 cases of the new coronavirus across the Middle East. The situation in Iran continued to worsen, with the country reporting 835 new cases, taking the total to 2,336. The number of deaths also increased to 77, with 11 people succumbing to the virus. However, experts say the situation could be far worse than is being reported. Of those outside Iran in the region, almost all can be traced back to the Islamic Republic.
There is widespread suspicion that Iran is under-reporting the number of cases of both deaths and infections. Such is the scale of the spread of the disease in Iran that 23 members of parliament and the head of the country’s emergency services have also been infected. Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican and a recently elected MP, who is also close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has died of coronovirus infection.
However, the senior most Iranian official to die of the disease is Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi. Another high-profile person to be infected, according to Iranian state media, is Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as ‘Sister Mary’, the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis. Also infected is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
Iranian authorities also said Tuesday they will mobilise 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to fight the spread of the disease.
Six new cases in Oman
Meanwhile, Oman announced six new cases, while Morocco reported its first infection. Saudi Arabia also quarantined 70 people who were in direct contact with suspected cases of coronavirus. The total number of cases in Qatar rose to eight from five yesterday, while Kuwait, the second-most impacted country in the region outside Iran did not report any new cases.
Saudi Arabia bars citizens and residents
Meanwhile, in a dramatic move, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday barred GCC citizens and residents from entering the kingdom for 14 days after returning from outside the region due to coronavirus concerns.
This came as the Regional Director of the World Health Organisation, Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, said that while the numbers inside China have been rapidly declining, the sudden increase in cases in countries outside China, including in the Middle East, is "deeply alarming". He said: "We remain concerned about the surge of cases and deaths in the Region and the increase in the number of travel-related confirmed cases. We have also seen cases of local transmission in our Region, and it is likely that the outbreak may continue to progress from case importation to local transmission. We have the required expertise, capacities and tools to contain this outbreak. But the window of opportunity is closing, and we need to move fast."
He also said that this outbreak revealed weaknesses in the region's health systems, and highlighted "the need not only to act now, but to invest in preparedness capacities over the long term".