War-torn Syria braces for lockdown after first virus case
Syrians rushed to stock up on food and fuel Monday amid fears that authorities would resort to even stricter measures after reporting the first coronavirus infection in the country, where the healthcare system has been decimated by nearly a decade of civil war.
The arrival of the global pandemic in Syria as well as the Gaza Strip has raised concerns it could run rampant in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. War-torn Libya and Yemen, which have yet to report any cases, are also a source of concern.
The worst outbreak in the Middle East is unfolding in Iran, where state TV reported another 127 deaths on Monday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,812 amid more than 23,000 confirmed cases. Iran has faced widespread criticism for not imposing stricter quarantine measures early on. It is also suffering under severe US sanctions.
Lines formed outside grocery stores, banks and petrol stations across the Syrian capital, Damascus, as people braced for wider closures. The government has already closed restaurants, cafes and other businesses, and has halted public transportation.
The city's famed Hamidiyeh souk, a network of covered markets running through the Old City, was deserted after the government ordered all shops closed on Sunday.
Authorities said border crossings with Lebanon and Jordan would close at midday. Damascus International Airport was closed to commercial traffic after a final flight arrived from Moscow. State-run newspapers issued their last print edition and will only be available online.
Countries across the Middle East have ramped up restrictions on daily life in an effort to contain the global pandemic. Many have sealed their borders and cancelled flights.
The United Arab Emirates, home to the world's busiest international airport, said it was suspending all passenger and transit flights for two weeks. Dubai's airport is a vital hub connecting Western nations with Asian countries and Australia, and suspending transit flights there affects travellers around the world.
More than 340,000 people have been infected worldwide, and nearly 15,000 have died. Nearly 100,000 people have recovered.
Inside Syria's first case
Syria has close ties to Iran, which is a key ally of the government in the civil war, and Shiite pilgrims frequently travel between the two countries.
Syria's Health Ministry reported the first case of coronavirus in areas controlled by the government late Sunday – a 20-year-old woman it said had arrived from another country, without elaborating.
Syria's health care system has been ravaged by nearly a decade of war that has displaced millions of people and spawned rampant poverty. Hospitals and clinics across the country have been destroyed or damaged. The government is also under heavy international sanctions linked to its conduct during the war.
An open-ended curfew went into effect Monday in parts of northern and eastern Syria, which are controlled by a Kurdish-led civilian administration. It was not immediately clear how that would affect hundreds of US troops stationed in the region.
Updates from Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt
Gaza, where two people tested positive after returning from Pakistan, has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
The coastal territory is home to more than 2 million people but it only has around 60 respirators, and all but 15 are already in use, according to Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organisation's Gaza office.
Afghanistan reported its first death on Sunday, a man in his 40s. The war-torn country has reported 34 confirmed cases.
In Pakistan, which has reported more than 800 infections and four deaths, authorities have asked people to self-quarantine for two weeks. The government has said it hopes it won't have to order a mandatory lockdown.
Many people seem to be ignoring the advice, and instead going about daily life wearing face masks that provide little if any protection. Others have resorted to panic buying, fearing a curfew could soon be imposed.
Nearly all the cases in Pakistan have been linked to travel to Iran. Authorities have quarantined more than 2,500 people who have returned from Iran, mainly pilgrims, and are testing them for the virus.
In Egypt, state-run television reported that Major General Safea Abdel-Halim Dawood, who took part in efforts to disinfect public places in recent days, had died from the virus. The death of another senior officer who had taken part in those efforts was reported on Sunday. Egypt has reported around 330 cases and 16 deaths.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
How is coronavirus transmitted?
The human coronavirus is only spread from someone infected with COVID-19 to another. This occurs through close contact with an infected person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands or surfaces.
What is the difference between COVID-19 and the flu?
The symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are very similar, as they both can cause fever and respiratory issues.
Both infections are also transmitted the same way, via coughing or sneezing, or by contact with hands, surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus.
The speed of transmission and the severity of the infection are the key differences between COVID-19 and the flu.
The time from infection to the appearance of symptoms is typically shorter with the flu. However, there are higher proportions of severe and critical COVID-19 infections.