Jordan goes on virus lockdown as Iran's death toll mounts

OMAR AKOUR and NASSER KARIMI

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Air raid sirens echoed across Jordan's capital Saturday to mark the start of a three-day curfew, the latest mass lockdown in the Middle East aimed at containing the coronavirus, which has claimed another 123 lives in Iran, home to the region's worst outbreak.

The latest deaths bring Iran's overall toll to 1,556 amid 20,610 confirmed cases, according to figures released by the Health Ministry. Iran has faced widespread criticism for its lagging response to the outbreak, which has even infected and killed some senior officials.

In one of the strictest measures yet, Jordan has ordered all shops to close and all people to stay off the streets until at least Tuesday, when it plans to announce specific times for shopping. Authorities have already arrested 392 people accused of violating the curfew, said Amer Sartawi, a spokesman for the Public Security Directorate. He warned that anyone violating the orders would face legal action.

Several countries in the Middle East have closed schools, universities and nonessential businesses. Many are threatening fines or jail time to those caught violating the decrees.

In the Gaza Strip, the Health Ministry early Sunday confirmed the first two cases of coronavirus in the blockaded Palestinian territory. The development added to fears of a potential outbreak in crowded Gaza, which has an overstretched health care system after years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, cross-border conflicts with Israel and Palestinian political division.

Egypt announced that all museums and archaeological sites, including the famed pyramids at Giza, would be closed from Monday until the end of March. Mostafa Waziri, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said authorities would sterilize all sites during the closure.

Egypt also announced the temporary suspension of Friday prayers and other congregations in all mosques. The Coptic Orthodox Church canceled all services and wedding parties, and said funeral processions would be limited to family members of the deceased.

Egypt has reported 285 cases and eight deaths, and there are increasing calls for a curfew. The most populous Arab nation is home to more than 100 million people. Cairo, the capital, is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with more than 20 million residents.

Iran has been much slower to take action against the virus. It has urged people not to travel during the Persian New Year, a major national holiday, but many appear to be ignoring the guidance. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the number of cases has increased in many popular tourist destinations.

Iran has not ordered businesses to close, though many have done so on their own. Authorities only began closing popular religious pilgrimage sites earlier this week, long after the first virus cases were detected. There are concerns the country's health care infrastructure, weakened by severe U.S. sanctions, could be overwhelmed.

Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms from the coronavirus and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems.

More than 275,000 people have been infected worldwide. The virus has killed more than 11,000 people, while more than 88,000 have recovered.

Israel reported another 178 infections, bringing its total to 883, the second highest number in the region behind Iran. But that appears to be the result of stepped-up testing. Israel's Health Ministry has only reported one fatality and says only 15 patients are seriously ill. The ministry says it has tested more than 17,000 people.

Saturday is Mother's Day in the Middle East, and many took to social media to lament the fact that they would not be able to visit family members. Others thanked mothers who spent the holiday working as doctors or nurses at hospitals. One popular online greeting card praised mothers as the original advocates of hand-washing.

In Iraq, Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi, the army chief of staff, ordered a 50% reduction in on-duty personnel. Officers already on leave were instructed not to return until March 31, and women were granted extended leave.

Iraq, which has reported 193 cases and 14 deaths from the coronavirus, is still battling remnants of the Islamic State group.

In war-torn Syria, which has yet to report any cases, the military said it was distributing masks and gloves to soldiers and suspending group sports as a precautionary measure. It said it was also suspending all recruitment until April 22.

In the United Arab Emirates, the country’s National Media Council announced a temporary ban on “the distribution of all print newspapers, magazines and marketing material” beginning Tuesday, saying it was a measure to stop the spread of the virus. It said subscribers and shopping center outlets would be exempt.

Dr. Farida al-Hosani, a spokeswoman at the Ministry of Health and Prevention, separately asked the public to stay away from malls and restaurants, which remain open in the UAE.

The tiny, energy-rich nation of Qatar meanwhile warned citizens and residents to honor home quarantine rules. The state-run Qatar News Agency said authorities “captured 10 people” who broke the rules. It said those who disobey the orders could face prosecution.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian security forces arrested 20 Muslim preachers for allegedly violating a ban on holding Friday prayers, the Voice of Palestine reported. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, has closed mosques and barred all group prayers.

The Palestinian Authority has reported 52 confirmed cases, including 17 who recovered. Jordan has reported 85 infections, including one who recovered. Qatar has reported 460 cases, including 10 who recovered.

Even authorities in eastern Libya, who have yet to report any cases, suspended all public transportation and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. The government there is allied with Khalifa Hifter, whose forces control much of the war-torn country. The U.N.-supported government in the west, which also has no reported cases, declared a nightly curfew starting Sunday in areas under its control, including the capital Tripoli. It announced all mosques, educational facilities and shops would be closed and banned wedding parties, funerals and public transportation.

Yemen also has reported no cases but the internationally recognized government announced a temporary suspension of Friday prayers and congregations in mosques in areas under its control.

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Associated Press writer Omar Akour reported this story in Amman and AP writer Nasser Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran. AP writers Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; Samya Kullab in Baghdad and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.