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Palestinians Report 1st Death from Coronavirus, Syria Calls for Nationwide Curfew

Palestinians Report 1st Death from Coronavirus, Syria Calls for Nationwide Curfew

Wednesday, 25 March, 2020 - 18:30
Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City is deserted after measures to stem spread of coronavirus. (AFP)
Asharq Al-Awsat

Palestinians reported their first death from the coronavirus on Wednesday, a woman in her 60s who lived in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The woman had experienced symptoms and was later hospitalized” before succumbing to the illness, said Ibrahim Melhem, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank.

The woman was from Bidu, a Palestinian village north of Jerusalem and southwest of Ramallah, Melhem added.

There are 62 confirmed coronavirus cases among Palestinians in the West Bank, and two in the Gaza Strip.

In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed on Wednesday as a precaution against the coronavirus.

The closure, initially for a week, followed a meeting between Israeli police and church leaders, said Wadie Abu Nassar, spokesperson of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, after the Israeli government announced tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

“The initial understanding is that this order is valid for one week, although nobody knows how long this crisis will take,” he said.

The closure comes in the build-up to Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar, which Roman Catholics this year celebrate on April 12. It would normally see thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to the city, whose streets are now virtually deserted.

Greek Orthodox celebrations are held a week later, including the traditional ceremony of the Holy Fire in the church, a hugely popular and colorful event symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross.

On Sunday, Muslim religious officials suspended all prayers at the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Mounting cases in Tunisia

Tunisia has confirmed 59 new cases of the coronavirus, Health Minister Abdelatif el-Mekki said in a televised news conference on Wednesday, taking the total number to 173.

Tunisia has instituted a curfew at nights and a lockdown during the day in which people are only allowed out to buy food or medicine or work in some key sectors.

Egypt announced Wednesday that one virus patient has died, bringing the toll to 21.

The health minister said 40 new cases were reported, taking the count to 442.

Nationwide curfew in Syria

Syria on Wednesday began a nationwide curfew from 6 pm to 6 am as lockdown measures to counter the spread of coronavirus were extended, residents and state media said.

The regime had already ordered the closure of shops, markets and public transport, allowing only pharmacies to open and limited deliveries of bread to prevent crowding near bakeries.

The Health Ministry said on Wednesday confirmed cases had risen to five after it reported its first case on Sunday. Medics and experts are skeptical of the figures, saying the authorities are covering up many more cases. The authorities deny this.

"The curfew is serious and any violator will be detained and face legal measures," Interior Minister Mohamad al Rahmoun was quoted as saying on state television.

State media showed the main squares in the capital Damascus empty of cars and people.

Medics say the country is at high risk of a major outbreak because of a fragile health system devastated by a nine-year war and lack of sufficient equipment to detect the virus.

Opposition figures and independent politicians point to Damascus' strong ties with Iran, the worst affected country in the region, as a source of possible contagion.

They say the virus is coming from some of members of Iranian-backed militias who are fighting alongside the Syrian regime. Iran has a huge presence in Syria with thousands of militiamen who control large areas and towns.

Syria says it has suspended its incoming and outgoing passenger flights as part of measures to curb the virus.

Western intelligence sources say Iranian-backed forces continue to fly into Syria and cross from the Albukamal border crossing, near Iraq.

Iran has imposed social distancing measures to combat the outbreak in the country, including travel restrictions.

Sudan releases prisoners

Sudan, meanwhile, released 4,217 prisoners on Wednesday as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, state news agency SUNA said, citing a health ministry official who said those freed had been tested for possible infections.

Sudan, which is in the middle of an economic crisis and transition after the toppling of veteran ruler Omar al-Bashir last year, has confirmed three cases of the coronavirus.

Its health system is in a poor state after years without investment and an exodus of doctors to seek work abroad.

Sudan, which declared a public health emergency last week, has imposed a nationwide curfew at night to help curb the spread of the coronavirus and closed all its airports, ports and land crossings.

Only humanitarian, commercial and technical support shipments are excluded from the restrictions, according to the ruling council, in charge of the country since Bashir’s ouster.

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