Coronavirus: Restrictions tighten as Middle East countries advise against travel

Schools are closing and events are being cancelled to prevent the spread of coronavirus

Plans are being cancelled and overseas trips postponed as coronavirus concerns impact everyday life. Countries across the Middle East continue to tighten restrictions on travel in an effort to curb the spread of the disease, which has now infected over 3,740 people in the region.

The Palestinian Authority on Thursday ordered hotels in the occupied West Bank to stop receiving foreign tourists after four suspected cases of the virus were found in Bethlehem.

The city’s historic Nativity Church, which stands on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, has become the latest religious site to be closed over coronavirus fears. With Easter approaching, the church was expected to draws tens of thousands of visitors, but the closure comes as authorities across the region restrict access to usually-crowded religious sites.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented move of shutting off Mecca, disrupting travel plans for thousands of Muslims on their way to Islam’s holiest site. In Iran, Friday prayers were cancelled in major cities.

Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced a series of new measures in a televised press conference on Thursday as confirmed cases climbed to 3,513 and deaths from the virus reached 107. He called on Iranians to reduce their use of paper money to slow the spread of the outbreak and advised people to stay in their cars at petrol stations and allow attendants to fill their tanks.

Checkpoints will be set up across the country to curb travel between major cities and schools and universities will remain closed during Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 20.

The UAE and Turkey have both warned residents against travelling abroad. "In order to prevent infections, our citizens should avoid going abroad unless necessary, and those who do should isolate themselves for 14 days," Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Kocaa said, adding that the slow response by European countries was putting Turks at risk.

In Europe, Italy remains the country most severely impacted by the virus, also known as Covid-19. At least 107 people have died from the disease in the space of two weeks and the total number of cases has almost reached 3,100.

Church services have been cancelled in the worst-affected areas, including the northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna and the Venice Architecture Biennale has been postponed till August.


The Italian government has adopted a decree authorising emergency measures up to April 3 that include the suspension of any events “that entail a gathering of people”, the closure of cinemas and schools and a restriction on the wearing of marks to those who have symptoms or are assisting the sick.

Italians are being advised to avoid shaking hands and keep a safe distance “of at least one metre” from other people.

Elsewhere, South Africa’s health ministry has confirmed the country’s first case of coronavirus while India has shut schools in Delhi and imposed new travel restrictions due to the virus.

In the US, Facebook has temporarily closed its Seattle office after a worker was diagnosed with the disease.

Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the epidemic, has reported a quicker rise in the virus in recent days, with 80,409 confirmed cases across mainland China. However, a Chinese government expert said on Thursday that new infections in the city may drop to zero by the end of the month.

Worldwide the virus has infected more than 95,000 people and killed at least 3,300 people.