Middle East countries 'need to act quickly' as coronavirus cases mount

New cases at the weekend have raised concern that the disease could spread across the region

People wearing face masks ride on a motorbike outside Rafik Hariri hospital, where Lebanon's first coronavirus case is being quarantined, in Beirut, Lebanon February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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New cases of coronavirus across the Middle East have prompted a fresh wave of concern as countries try to stem the spread of the disease. Iraq became the latest country to confirm its first case of coronavirus on Monday afternoon.

Kuwait, Bahrain and Afghanistan confirmed their first cases of coronavirus on Monday, while in Iran, wildly divergent figures emerged, with some reports claiming that 50 people had died from the virus in the Iranian city of Qom.

On Saturday, the UAE announced that more people had tested positive while Lebanon reported its first case of coronavirus after a 45-year-old women tested positive following a flight from Qom in Iran. On the same day, Kuwait said that it would send planes to bring 750 Kuwaiti nationals back from the country. Other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have sent planes to bring citizens back from China.

World Health Organisation director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned that the “window of opportunity is narrowing, so we need to act quickly before it closes completely."

Palestinian and Israeli authorities tried to quell concern at the weekend after reports that nine South Korean tourists who visited sites in the Holy Land earlier this month had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Last week, South Korea reported an eight-fold increase in viral infections over four days, taking the total to 433. The country has become the latest hotspot for the disease, which worldwide has infected more than 79,000 people and caused more than 2,400 deaths. The vast majority are in mainland China, where the first case of coronavirus was reported on December 31 in Wuhan province.


An Iranian national is the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Iraq. Local health officials in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf detected the case in an Iranian theology student who entered before the government shut border crossings and banned non-Iraqis from entering the country from Iran.

"It has become clear to the ministry that the results of lab tests conducted on a theology student, an Iranian citizen, who had entered the country before ... the decision to stop travel have revealed he is ill with the coronavirus," the ministry said in a statement.


The country's health ministry announced the first three cases of coronavirus on Monday. A Saudi national is among the cases, according to reports from Kuwait's state news agency, which said they were in a group of nationals brought back from the Iranian city of Mashad last week.

On Monday, Iraq said it had closed its Safwan border with Kuwait to prevent the spread of the virus.


The kingdom's first case of coronavirus was confirmed on Monday when a Bahraini citizen tested positive following a flight from Iran. The individual was transferred to the Ebrahim Khalil Kanoo Medical Centre for immediate testing, treatment and isolation, the country's Ministry of Health said in a statement.


The first case of coronavirus was reported this week when a 45-year-old woman tested positive after a flight from Qom in Iran on Thursday. Health Minister Hamad Hassan announced on Saturday that everyone travelling from Iran, where six people have now died from the virus, will be tested before boarding flights to Lebanon. However, the government has refused to cancel flights from Iran, prompting an outpouring of anger from the Lebanese.

"We have made contact with Iranian authorities who assured us that all necessary measures will be taken before a new flight arrives from Iran on Monday. The same measures will be taken for all flights arriving from coronavirus-infected countries," Lebanon's health minister Hassan Hamad said, according to local news outlet Naharnet.

Some in the deeply divided country have blamed Iran, which supports the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. The local MTV station, which is a harsh critic of Iran and Hezbollah, said in an editorial, “as if what Iran is sending to Lebanon and the Lebanese is not enough so it sent us coronavirus.

The occupied Palestinian territories and Israel

A coronavirus helpline was flooded with calls in Israel after authorities ordered people to report to Israel’s Health Ministry and observe a two-week quarantine following reports that visitors to the Holy Land had contracted the coronavirus.

On Saturday, the ministry announced that nine South Korean nationals, who travelled to holy sites in Israel and the occupied West Bank earlier this month, had tested positive for the disease. It is not yet known whether they were infected with the virus before or after arriving.

On Friday, Israel reported its first case of coronavirus after 11 Israeli passengers were flown home from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, which has the largest cluster of cases outside mainland China. All members of the group had initially tested negative for the disease but were tested again on arrival. A woman tested positive as a carrier but is not exhibiting any symptoms of the disease.

Israel has now increased its quarantine regulations to require all arrivals from South Korea and Japan to spend two weeks in quarantine.


Conflicting figures emerged on Monday with state TV reporting that the death toll had risen to 12, up from four on the previous day, with 47 infected. However, Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency claimed that 50 had died in the city of Qom, with the deaths dating back to February 13. The first officially reported cases of the virus in Iran, and its first deaths, were released on February 19.

ILNA quoted an official from Qom, Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani, saying that more than 250 people are in quarantine in the city, which is a popular place of religious study for Shiites from across Iran and other countries. If correct, the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus would be higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.

Schools, universities and cultural centres have been closed in provinces across the country as a “preventive measure,” state TV reported. Art and cinema events were also cancelled to stop the spread of infections. "We are on the front lines, we need help," Mohammadreza Ghadir, the head of Qom's medical sciences university, said on state TV.

The World Health Organisation expressed concern that the rapid rise in cases in Iran could spread to other countries in the region. “We have seen an increase in cases, a very rapid increase in a matter of a few days," said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO's global infectious hazard preparedness department.


A case of coronavirus was announced on February 14 but, days later, Egypt’s health ministry said the individual had subsequently tested negative for the disease.


On Monday, Afghanistan confirmed its first case of coronavirus in western Herat province.