By SARAH EL DEEB and NASSER KARIMI
BEIRUT (AP) — Iraq and Lebanon prepared Thursday to extend government-imposed restrictions on movement for two more weeks, the latest measures announced to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. In Iran, the death toll jumped by 157 new fatalities, prompting new steps to limit public gatherings and domestic travel.
In Saudi Arabia, authorities announced a total lockdown on the capital, Riyadh, and Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in addition to a nationwide curfew. In the United Arab Emirates, authorities announced an overnight weekend lockdown and used drones to tell residents to stay home.
As countries in the region grapple with the fast-spreading virus, leaders of the world’s most powerful economies were to convene virtually in an effort to coordinate a response.
The meeting for the Group of 20 nations will be chaired by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and comes amid criticism that the world’s wealthiest countries have not taken cohesive action to combat the outbreak, which has shuttered businesses and forced well over a quarter of the world’s population into home isolation.
Iraq’s Health Ministry reported a jump of coronavirus-related deaths by seven in 24 hours, according to a statement on Thursday, the highest since the government began recording cases. At least 36 people among 382 confirmed infected cases have died.
Iraqis have struggled to adhere to the days-long curfew in place since March 17, prompting senior Iraqi officials and prominent religious figures to call for the public to stay at home and avoid congregating in crowds. Iraq’s Cabinet declared Thursday it would extend the curfew until April 11, the second extension since the curfew was first imposed.
Health officials said they expect numbers to rise as more are tested in the coming weeks. An Iraqi army statement said it would send units to enforce a weeks long curfew to stem the spread of the virus, and even cordon off areas where cases were mounting. The provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Karbala saw the highest number of new cases, according to the ministry.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council said it recommended to the government a two-week extension to the nationwide lockdown that was to expire Saturday. The Cabinet is meeting and is likely to adopt the recommendation, extending the lockdown until April 12.
The Defense Council, which includes the president and prime minister, also called for tightening punitive measures against violators of the restrictions that have ordered businesses and government offices to shut down. Lebanon, a country of nearly 5 million, has recorded six deaths of the virus while 386 people have been confirmed as infected.
In Iran, which is facing the worst outbreak in the region, the death toll rose to 2,234 on Thursday with 157 new fatalities, according to the health ministry. There are more than 29,000 confirmed cases in Iran, where authorities have advised people to stay home but refrained from imposing nationwide movement restrictions or curfews as seen elsewhere.
However, President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday that the government will apply more travel and gathering restrictions for the next two weeks to “break the chain” of the virus, and announced an aid package to support struggling businesses. The new restrictions will include a ban on domestic travel by road and public gatherings, the closure of all public parks and points of meetings, according to Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari who spoke on sate TV.
Zolfaghari said authorities will punish shops that remain open with a one-month forced closure. Pharmacies, groceries and bakeries are exempt.
Rouhani said that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran is faring better than other countries. The government is offering a $5 billion package to support struggling businesses, and will extend low-interest loans to businesses that do not lay off any workers. He also said the government plans to allocate $1 billion to support both the health care system and the unemployed.
The lockdown of Riyadh, Mecca and Medina, include a 15-hour curfew starting at 3 p.m. The rest of the kingdom has 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. King Salman ordered the latest restrictions and announced them on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has 1012 confirmed infected cases and four deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
In the UAE, malls, airports and beaches have already been closed, and authorities said a weekend overnight curfew would begin Thursday at 8 p.m., lasting till 6 a.m. Buses, trams and the metro will be suspended over the weekend so they could be disinfected. Police in Dubai and the nearby emirate of Sharjah were using drones to tell people to stay indoors.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank issued a call on G20 countries ahead of Thursday’s meeting, warning of severe economic and social consequences for developing countries, home to a quarter of the world’s population and where most of the world’s poorest people reside.
The lenders called for a suspension of debt payments from these countries.
The global death toll from the new coronavirus has climbed past 21,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 472,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran. Associated Press writers Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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