Coronavirus spreads through Middle East, death toll rises, hotel row in Kuwait

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The coronavirus exploded across the Middle East on Monday as four countries reported infections for the first time, deaths in Iran rose sharply, and arguments erupted in a Kuwait hotel over quarantine.

Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman all reported their first cases on Monday.

Iran was the first country in the region to report deaths, and the rate of reported infections have prompted questions over the government’s transparency. One member of parliament claimed that over 50 people have died in Qom alone, which was denied by the Health Ministry.

At a Kuwait hotel, an argument broke out between health officials and people who were to be quarantined.

The first case reported in the region was in the UAE on January 29 and the virus has since been reported in seven countries. Most of them emanated from Iran, prompting neighboring countries to shut their borders and airliners to suspend flights.

Iran is the only country in the Middle East where people have died of coronavirus and has the highest death toll outside of China.

On Monday, the government reported a death toll of 12. Tehran first reported deaths on February 19, when it announced two people had died in Qom, a day after the Iranian interior minister allegedly urged the country’s health minister to refrain from announcing any coronavirus cases prior to the parliamentary elections February 21.

Yesterday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed Iran’s “enemies” for stoking fears of coronavirus to affect election turnouts, which were low in the country.

Protests in Iran broke out over the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and demonstrators clashed with security forces in the northern city of Talash.

Read more: Nine countries close air and land borders with Iran over coronavirus fears

The reported numbers were challenged by Qom MP Ahmad Amirabadi Farhani on Monday, who suggested that the government had been deliberately hiding the number – and that at least 50 had died in the city of Qom alone.

On the same day, the Health Ministry upped its number of infections to 61, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Eight other countries reported cases originating from people coming from Iran: Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Canada. Cases have been reported but not confirmed in Turkey and Azerbaijan, according to Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

The region reacts

Turkey, Pakistan, and Armenia have all shut their borders with Iran, and Afghanistan said it is suspending travel to Iran. The UAE banned its citizens from traveling to Iran and Thailand.

Iraq, which reported its first case on Monday in an elderly Iranian national in Najaf, said earlier it will set up quarantine centers along its border with Iran and it extended its entry ban on Iranian travelers. Iraq has a poor healthcare system, and many hospitals are under-equipped; there are less than 10 doctors for every 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Similarly, Pakistan began quarantining at least 200 returning Shia pilgrims returning from Iran as fears grew over the virus’s spread. Pakistan also shares a border with China, and has little ability to deal with the outbreak of infectious diseases, according to RAND’s Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index.

On Monday, Iraq also shut its border crossing with Kuwait after the latter reported its first case. Kuwait suspended flights to Iran on Saturday.

In Kuwait, the diagnosed person was a Saudi Arabian citizen, and Saudi Arabia said it will coordinate with the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health to treat the infected person.

In Lebanon, the diagnosed woman denied she was carrying the disease after returning from Qom, saying it was only a cough, and blamed the Lebanese government for lying about her case.

Jordan, which has not reported any cases, said on Sunday it would bar entry to Chinese, Iranian, and South Korean citizens and other foreigners traveling from those countries.

First found in UAE

The UAE was the first Middle Eastern country to report a case of coronavirus on January 29. A family of four arriving from the virus’s epicenter Wuhan, China, were diagnosed by Emirati doctors. Since then, around 10 other cases have been reported in the UAE, including an Iranian couple.

CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi Dr. Rakesh Suri told Al Arabiya English that the UAE is one of the safest places to be protected from a disease like coronavirus.

“The government and academic health care organizations, like Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, are in very close communication,” Suri said. “As the situation evolves globally, we are staying on top of it but I want to reiterate the message that is one of the safest places anywhere to live and to be a patient right here in Abu Dhabi.”

Egypt announced its first case – the first in Africa – on February 14. The country’s health ministry said the patient was a foreigner and that they had been quarantined. Egyptian authorities had previously evacuated 301 nationals from Wuhan and quarantined them for the requisite 14 days. Egypt also suspended all flights on its national carrier to China.

Read more:

From China to Europe and the world: A timeline of the coronavirus outbreak

Experts predict further spread of coronavirus

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