People wearing masks seen in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama on February 26, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The coronavirus continues to cast a dark shadow over the Middle East, as it does globally. Worldwide, at least 86,000 people have now been infected, with close to 3,000 deaths.

The World Health Organisation has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it.

The virus continued to spread in the region with Iran on Saturday reporting nine new deaths from and 205 fresh cases in, bringing its overall toll to 54 dead and 978 infected.

The ministry's spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said new cases were confirmed in a number of cities, including Mashhad, which is home to Iran's most important Shiite shrine that attracts pilgrims from across the region.

Covid 19 Iran data
Source: WHO Image Credit: Jay Hilotin / Gulf News

Calls by Iran's civilian government to clerics to close such shrines to to the public have not been uniformly followed. The shrine in Mashhad is among those that have remained open.

Most experts fear the real toll in Iran, of both the dead and the infected, is much more.

Gulf countries have braced themselves for the impact and have pulled out all stops in their attempt to contain and defeat the virus.

Multiple measures

They have announced multiple measures to sever links with Iran to prevent the spread of the disease.

All cases of infection in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East can be traced to Iran, primarily to pilgrims returning from the country.

Saudi Arabia, which has not reported any case of the disease, on Friday barred citizens from the GCC from entering Mecca and Medina amid fears over coronavirus. Kuwait reported another case on Sunday, while banning visits to prisoners for fear of spread of disease.

The Gulf tally stands at 46 cases of coronavirus in Kuwait, 38 in Bahrain, six in Oman and 21 in the UAE.

On Saturday the UAE also announced it was suspending nursery school classes, and limiting activities at other schools.

Stocks slide

Stock markets in the Gulf took a dip at the start of trading Sunday over fears of the impact of the coronavirus, which also battered global bourses last week.

All of the seven bourses in the GCC were hit as oil prices dropped below $50 a barrel.

The Saudi bourse, the region’s largest and one of the world’s top 10 share markets, was down 3.1 per cent at the opening bell.

The region’s slide was led by Kuwait Boursa, where the All-Share Index fell 10 per cent, triggering its closure. Kuwait’s bourse was closed for most of last week for national holidays.

The Dubai Financial Market dipped 4.3 per cent, while Abu Dhabi was down 3.8 per cent an hour after opening.

Qatar Stock Exchange dropped 0.6 per cent, Bahrain’s bourse edged down 2.1 per cent and the Muscat Securities Market in Oman lost 0.6 per cent.

-Inputs from agencies