Lebanon limits flights to countries with coronavirus, stops pilgrimage trips

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The Lebanese government has decided to restrict flights to countries with coronavirus outbreaks and to completely halt flights for pilgrims, the information minister said after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Lebanese Muslims regularly fly to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage. Lebanon declared its first confirmed case of coronavirus on Friday, a 45-year-old woman who had returned from Iran.

Some people in Lebanon have called for flights from Iran and other countries to be cancelled over coronavirus fears, after infection rates in Iran rose sharply.

Lebanon’s parliamentary Health and Social Affairs Committee met Tuesday to discuss measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country. The committee’s head said some members asked for flights from countries experiencing outbreaks be suspended. Lebanon reported its first case last week in a woman returning from Iran.

“It was a wish of some of the colleagues that all the flights from the affected countries be stopped – after the Lebanese who are there return to Lebanon, because we are responsible for them,” Assem Araji, a Future Movement member of Parliament from the Zahle region in east Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English.

The parliament committee met with Health Minister Hamad Hassan and made recommendations he then brought to Cabinet Tuesday afternoon. At the close of the session, Cabinet said it discussed "preventative measures."

Araji noted that a number of other countries, including Iraq, the UAE, and Kuwait, had already suspended flights to and from Iran and other countries with significant outbreaks of coronavirus.

To date, 27 people have tested positive for coronavirus in six countries in the Arab region after returning from Iran. Iran has reported 15 deaths from coronavirus, the highest number outside China, although the accuracy of the number is disputed.

Lebanon has reduced, but not halted, the number of flights coming from Iran and has put in place additional screening measures on arrival for passengers coming from countries experiencing outbreaks. Italy has also reported a substantial number of coronavirus cases. The Beirut airport’s flight tracker showed a flight scheduled to arrive from Rome Tuesday afternoon.

To date, Lebanon has one confirmed case of coronavirus, a 45-year-old woman who came on a flight from Iran last week. She is under quarantine at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, a government-run hospital in south Beirut.

Hassan said Monday that out of 34 potential cases tested in Lebanon since February 20, including 18 who arrived on the same plane as the infected woman, she was the only one that had tested positive.

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Araji said the health committee had also asked for the World Health Organization to help to set up a hospital in each of Lebanon’s governorates to be equipped to quarantine suspected cases of coronavirus.

“In every governorate there should be a hospital prepared with isolation rooms as Rafik Hariri hospital is,” he said.

He said the committee had also asked for an increase in the number of employees conducting screenings at the Beirut airport.

“I asked of him to also to increase the number of employees present in the airport, because the number of employees is not enough,” Araji said.

Additionally, Araji said the committee had discussed the issue of medical supply shortages, particularly shortages and price hikes for face masks. Economy Minister Raoul Nehme issued an order banning the export of face masks and other protective equipment after learning that some Lebanese companies had been selling protective equipment from Lebanon to other countries.

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