Middle East reels under COVID-19 threat; Kuwait halts all flights, declares holiday for two weeks

Middle East reels under COVID-19 threat; Kuwait halts all flights, declares holiday for two weeks
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Dubai: Qatar reported 238 more coronavirus infections among individuals under quarantine in a residential compound on Wednesday, the latest Gulf state to record new cases in a regional outbreak that prompted Kuwait to cancel all commercial passenger flights.

Bahrain earlier announced 77 new infections among citizens evacuated by plane from Iran, which has emerged as an epicentre for the virus in the Middle East. Two meetings of G20 economies due to be held in Saudi Arabia have been postponed.

Kuwait, which has 72 confirmed coronavirus cases, announced it would halt all commercial passenger flights starting on Friday and declared a public holiday from March 12 to March 26 except for entities providing essential services.

It banned people from going to restaurants and cafes and asked them to no longer hold Kuwait's traditional diwaniya private and public gatherings, state news agency KUNA said.

All Gulf Arab states have recorded infections but no deaths.

The spike in cases in Qatar, which took the country's tally to 262, was among expatriates who had been quarantined inside one compound after three residents were diagnosed with the virus on Sunday, the health ministry said.

Bahrain's new infections were among 165 individuals flown home on Tuesday in the first repatriation flight from Iran. A second government-chartered flight is set for Thursday.

Those who did not test positive will be quarantined in a dedicated facility, Bahrain's government communications office said in a separate statement.

There are no direct flights between Bahrain and Iran, the world's fourth most affected country, with more than 8,000 infections. Airlines are cancelling flights across the region as governments try to stem the spread of the virus.

A meeting of agriculture and water ministers of the Group of 20 major economies in Saudi Arabia, set from March 17 to March 19, has been postponed until further notice because of virus concerns, organisers said in an email seen by Reuters.

A G20 working group meeting scheduled for next week was also postponed, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The kingdom holds the G20 presidency this year and hosts the annual summit in November. It recorded one new virus infection in an Egyptian transiting through Jeddah airport on his way to Cairo, state media said on Wednesday, taking its tally to 21.

Riyadh's preventive measures include locking down its eastern Qatif region, suspending the Umrah pilgrimage and travel bans on 14 countries. The causeway linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain was closed on Saturday.

In the United Arab Emirates, the central bank said it was prepared to support the banking system in mitigating against the downside risk of the coronavirus outbreak.

Iran's vice president, 2 cabinet members test positive

Iran's senior vice president and two other Cabinet members have contracted the new coronavirus, a semiofficial news agency reported on Wednesday as the death toll in the Islamic Republic from the outbreak rose by 62 to 354.

Authorities announced that there were some 9,000 confirmed cases of the virus across Iran.

Across the Mideast, the vast majority of the 9,700 people who have contracted the coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes are in hard-hit Iran or had recently returned from there. The Islamic Republic has one of the world's worst death tolls outside of China, the epicentre of the outbreak. 

Outside of Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Middle East.

There are concerns that the number of infections across Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, which is struggling to contain or manage its spread. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over.

Saudi Arabia bans travel to and from 14 countries, stops pilgrimages

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has barred travel to and from 14 countries affected by the new virus. Early on, as the virus spread in Asia, the kingdom stopped pilgrimages to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, and cut travel links with China and later, Iran. It has also barred entry and exit for residents of Qatif, an eastern Saudi province where most of the country's 21 cases of the virus are confirmed after travel back to Iran.

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday labelled the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic.

"We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.

The coronavirus, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sporting events and concerts.

Now there are more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died, Tedros said, with the numbers expected to climb.

(With inputs from agencies)

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