Thousands of Algerians defied the threat of coronavirus on Friday to march against the ruling elite, keeping up a campaign of weekly protests that have lasted for more than a year and convulsed national politics.
In neighboring Libya, schools in areas controlled by both the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and interim government in Benghazi in the east will close for two weeks, both have announced.
Libya has not yet confirmed any cases of the coronavirus but the head of its disease control center said on Thursday that the country lacked adequate isolation facilities for an outbreak.
Algeria has confirmed 26 cases of the coronavirus and two deaths, and the prime minister this week urged citizens to reduce their demands on the government and lessen their street presence in view of the risks to public health.
In downtown Algiers, police wore face masks and a group of youngsters sold protective gear and liquid soap along with national flags, which many protesters have waved during demonstrations.
"It is against coronavirus," said 25-year-old protester Ahmed Saci as he bought soap, reported Reuters.
Those who marched on Friday said they remained committed to keeping their protest movement - known as Hirak, or “movement” - in force until they achieve their demand of pushing the old ruling elite from power.
"I will continue. I will never stop until the system is defeated," said Slimani Aissi, 22, on Didouche Mourad Boulevard in the city center.
However, the threat from the coronavirus persuaded some protesters to desist for now.
"Hirak as it is now does not comply with health measures to fight coronavirus... I suggest postponing it temporarily," said Liess Merabet, a doctor and the leader of a labor union.
The government, which has publicly praised Hirak while using police tactics and arrests to put protesters under pressure, has banned spectators from sports events and closed schools and universities.
This week it also barred political and social gatherings, but it did not specify whether this measure would apply to the weekly mass protests.
Tunisia will immediately suspend prayers in mosques, close cafes at 4pm every day, and ban all cultural, sports and economic gatherings to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said on Friday.
The government has also closed Tunisia's maritime borders, suspended all flights to and from Italy, in addition to reducing flights with Egypt, Germany, Britain and France.
Measures across Arab world
Tunisia has confirmed 16 cases of the coronavirus, mostly among recent arrivals from Europe, and the disease is expected to hit its crucial tourism sector hard.
Sudan on Friday reported its first confirmed coronavirus case, a man who died on Thursday and had visited the United Arab Emirates in the first week of March.
The man, in his 50s, died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Sudan on Thursday stopped visa issuance and flight services to eight countries including Italy and neighboring Egypt over fears of the coronavirus outbreak. Bus trips to Egypt have also been suspended.
Iraq has banned entry to travelers coming from Germany and Qatar, its health minister said on Friday, bringing the total number of countries on its entry ban list to 13 as it tries to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The ban does not extend to Iraqi citizens and foreign diplomats, Health Minister Jaafar Allawi said in a statement. Iraq has so far recorded 83 cases of coronavirus, eight deaths, and 24 recoveries.
Allawi, who heads the government’s coronavirus taskforce, also banned domestic travel between provinces from March 15-25 with the exception of emergencies, trade, and employees commuting to work. Major religious gatherings during the Islamic month of Rajab (Feb. 25 - March 24) were also banned.
Lebanon’s banks will close on Saturday in order to take steps to sanitize branches and prevent the spread of coronavirus, the country’s banking association said in a statement on Friday.
Lebanon has so far recorded 77 cases of coronavirus and three deaths, according to the health ministry.
Skepticism in Syria
Syrian authorities on Friday announced measures aimed at preventing coronavirus from reaching the war-torn country, including school closures and a ban on smoking shisha in cafes, state media reported.
Damascus ordered the closure of all public and private schools, universities and technical institutes until April 2, SANA reported.
The regime also cut civil servant staffing by 60 percent, slashed working hours and suspended the use of fingerprint scanners for public employees for a month, SANA said.
Authorities announced a halt to all "scientific, cultural, social and sporting activities" and banned the smoking of popular shisha water pipes in cafes and restaurants.
Two quarantine centers will be established in each of the country's provinces, the government said.
To date Syria has not reported any cases of COVID-19, and on Friday, the health ministry again denied that the virus was present, SANA said.
But such denials have been met with skepticism online, given that Syria's five neighbors -- Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel -- have all reported COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
The risk of the virus spreading is particularly pressing in Idlib, which shelters some three million people.
The northwestern province is the country's last opposition bastion and has been subject to months of intense bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia.
Nearly one million people have been displaced since December by the offensive, which was halted on March 6 by a ceasefire negotiated between Russia and Turkey.
Recent fighting also damaged the province's medical infrastructure, already devastated by nine years of war.
Syria's "fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond" to an epidemic, World Health Organization spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson told AFP on Sunday.