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Iraq, Lebanon extend government restrictions to combat virus

By The Associated Press
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BEIRUT (AP) — Iraq and Lebanon extended on Thursday government-imposed restrictions on movement for two more weeks, the latest measures announced to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. In Iran, the death toll jumped by 157, prompting new steps to limit public gatherings and domestic travel.

In Saudi Arabia, authorities announced a total lockdown on the capital, Riyadh, and Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in addition to a nationwide curfew. In the United Arab Emirates, authorities announced an overnight weekend lockdown and used drones to tell residents to stay home.

As countries in the region grapple with the fast-spreading virus, leaders of the world's most powerful economies were to convene virtually in an effort to coordinate a response.

The meeting for the Group of 20 nations was being chaired by Saudi Arabia's King Salman and comes amid criticism that the world's wealthiest countries have not taken cohesive action to combat the outbreak, which has shuttered businesses and forced well over a quarter of the world's population into home isolation.

Iraq’s Health Ministry reported a jump of coronavirus-related deaths by seven in 24 hours, according to a statement Thursday, the highest since the government began recording cases. At least 36 people among 382 confirmed infected cases have died.

Iraqis have struggled to adhere to the days-long curfew in place since March 17, prompting senior Iraqi officials and prominent religious figures to call for the public to stay at home and avoid congregating in crowds. Iraq's Cabinet extended the curfew until April 11 for the second time since it was first imposed.

Health officials said they expect numbers to rise as more are tested in the coming weeks. An Iraqi army statement said it would send units to enforce a weeks-long curfew and even cordon off areas where cases are mounting. The provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Karbala saw the highest number of new cases, according to the ministry.

The Lebanese Cabinet extended a lockdown expiring Saturday until April 12, which is Easter Sunday, something that will likely dampen celebrations in this Mideast country with a large Christian population.

Lebanon, with a population of nearly 5 million, has recorded six deaths of the virus while 35 new infected cases were recorded Thursday, raising the total to 386 cases. Tightening its measures, the government also extended the shutdown to all public institutions, including municipalities, and ordered exempt stores, such as bakeries, pharmacies and supermarkets, to close between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day.

In Iran, which is facing the worst outbreak in the region, the death toll rose to 2,234 on Thursday with 157 new fatalities, according to the health ministry. There are more than 29,000 confirmed cases in Iran, where authorities have advised people to stay home but refrained from imposing nationwide movement restrictions or curfews as seen elsewhere.

However, President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday there would be more travel and gathering restrictions for the next two weeks to “break the chain" of the virus, and announced an aid package to support struggling businesses. The new measures will include a ban on domestic travel by road and public gatherings, as well as closure of all public parks and points of meetings, Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari said on sate TV. Authorities will punish shops that remain open with a month's forced closure. Pharmacies, groceries and bakeries are exempt.

Rouhani claimed that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran is faring better than other countries. The government is offering a $5 billion package to support struggling businesses, and will extend low-interest loans to businesses that do not lay off any workers, he said and added that the government plans to allocate $1 billion to support the health care system and the unemployed.

The lockdown of Riyadh, Mecca and Medina, includes a 15-hour curfew starting at 3 p.m. The rest of the kingdom has 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Saudi Arabia has 1012 confirmed infected cases and four deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Jordan, which has recorded 172 infections, announced on Thursday that anyone who flouts its nightly curfew will be fined up to 500 dinars (around $700). Repeat offenders could face up to a year's imprisonment. Only essential shops are allowed to operate in the kingdom.

In the UAE, malls, airports and beaches have already been closed, and authorities said a weekend overnight curfew would begin Thursday at 8 p.m., lasting till 6 a.m. Buses, trams and the metro will be suspended over the weekend so they could be disinfected. Police in Dubai and the nearby emirate of Sharjah were using drones to tell people to stay indoors.

The U.S. Navy said two sailors deployed to the UAE have tested positive for the virus while transiting through the island nation of Bahrain. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Navy spokeswoman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, told The Associated Press that other sailors traveling with the two infected had been quarantined for 14 days.

Rebarich declined to identify the unit or the number of sailors involved. However, the UAE hosts a Riverine squadron at a naval base in Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz

The global death toll from the new coronavirus has climbed past 21,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 472,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

___

Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran. Associated Press writers Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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