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1st Coronavirus Cases Confirmed in Gaza, Iraq Extends Curfew

1st Coronavirus Cases Confirmed in Gaza, Iraq Extends Curfew

Sunday, 22 March, 2020 - 05:00
Medics work at a hospital in Gaza City May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Authorities in the densely-populated Gaza Strip confirmed the first two cases of novel coronavirus on Sunday, identifying the individuals as Palestinians who had travelled to Pakistan and were held in quarantine on their return.


Meanwhile, the Palestinian government on Sunday ordered Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank confined to their homes for two weeks as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.


The order, announced by Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on television, goes into force at 10 pm (2000GMT). Medical personnel, pharmacists, grocers and bakers would be exempt, he said.


The United Nations has warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could be disastrous, given the high poverty rates and weak health system in the coastal strip under Israeli blockade since 2007.


But Gaza's health ministry said the two people who tested positive had been held in quarantine since their return from Pakistan on Thursday and did not interact with the wider population.


"These two cases were recorded among those who returned to Gaza” through Egypt, said deputy health minister Yousef Abu Al-Reesh.


They “did not mix with the residents of the Gaza Strip," he told reporters.


The sick, identified as two men, were in stable condition, the health ministry said.


Israel has enforced a blockade on Gaza since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the territory.


Authorities in Gaza have said that more than 2,700 Palestinians are in home-isolation, mostly people who had returned from Egypt.


The head of the World Health Organization's Palestinian office, Gerald Rockenschaub, told AFP this week that Israeli restrictions and political tensions have caused Gaza's health facilities to deteriorate over the past decade.


The coastal enclave that measures 375 square kilometers has only 60 intensive care (ICU) beds for its two million people and not all are operational due to staff shortages, he said.


In response to the pandemic, Israel has announced an increased supply of medical equipment to Gaza, including hundreds of COVID-19 test kits transferred this week.


Hamas authorities are also working to build up to 1,000 new isolation rooms near the Rafah crossing with Egypt.


The Gaza director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, Matthias Schmale, told AFP this week that it would be "an illusion to think you can manage (an epidemic) in a closed-off space like this."


"Everything I am hearing is if the outbreak reaches the magnitude where you need more than 60 ICU beds to treat, it will become increasingly difficult and could well turn into a disaster of gigantic proportions," he said.


Palestinians suffering from cancer and other serious diseases are currently allowed to leave Gaza through Israel for treatment inside the Jewish state or in the West Bank.


Iraq extends curfew


Iraq on Sunday imposed a total nationwide lockdown until March 28 to fight the coronavirus, as the number of cases grew and the death toll climbed to 20.


Most of Iraq's 18 provinces had so far imposed their own local curfews but the new measures would include the whole of the country, according to a new decision by the government's crisis cell.


Schools, universities and other gathering places would remain closed, as would the country's multiple international airports, it said in a statement seen by AFP.


Many had feared a potential influx of cases from neighboring Iran, where 1,685 people have died after contracting the COVID-19 respiratory illness.


Iraq first shut it 1,500-kilometer border with Iran about a month ago and deployed troops to enforce the decision.


The virus has killed only 20 people in Iraq while 233 others are infected but there are concerns that many cases are going undetected, as only 2,000 people of the country's 40-million population have been tested so far.


Lebanon enforces lockdown


In Lebanon, army helicopters flew over Beirut and other areas, including the eastern Bekaa Valley, urging people to stay home unless they have to leave for an emergency.


In the capital, army and police patrols drove through the streets ordering groups of people to disperse.


Lebanon ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses several days ago and the police in Beirut have cleared out the city's famed Mediterranean boardwalk.


Lebanon, with a population of around 5 million, including hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, has reported 230 confirmed cases and four deaths.


Outside the capital, the residents of some villages have set up checkpoints and are only allowing their neighbors in once their cars have been sprayed with disinfectant.


Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi told reporters that there will be a "crackdown" against any gathering of people.


“The situation is scary. Let us save ourselves, our loved ones and our country before it's too late,” he said.


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