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Coronavirus measures preventing aid from reaching 300K people in Middle East: NGO

An international aid group said Wednesday that closures aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic are preventing it from reaching 300,000 people in conflict zones across the Middle East, as the virus arrived in war-torn Libya and four more cases were detected in Syria.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said it was unable to reach people in Syria, Yemen and the Gaza Strip, where authorities have imposed strict measures to halt the spread of the virus. All have fragile health care systems that could be overwhelmed by an outbreak, and only Yemen has yet to report any cases.

“While governments are taking tough and much-needed measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, millions of refugees and displaced people still depend on humanitarian assistance,” said Jan Egeland, head of the aid group.

In northwestern Syria, hundreds of thousands of people are crammed into unsanitary tent camps, sheltering from the government offensive on the war-torn country’s last rebel stronghold. On Wednesday, the U.S. urged the Syrian government to halt its campaign so those displaced can access humanitarian aid. The U.S. also urged the Assad government to release thousands of civilians arbitrarily detained in crowded jails who are especially vulnerable to the virus. On Wednesday, Syria’s tally of cases rose to five and testing began after weeks of obstacles in the rebel-held province.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.

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Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping measures to prevent its spread, including closing their borders, cancelling flights and in some cases imposing round-the-clock curfews.

In Syria, an open-ended nightly curfew took effect Wednesday at 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT). State TV showed police patrolling the empty streets of Damascus and other main cities.

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The Israeli government Wednesday approved new restrictions, including the closure of all synagogues. Many in Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox communities have defied restrictions on public gatherings, fueling tension with authorities.

Twenty-nine per cent of those who contracted the virus in Israel were infected in a synagogue or a yeshiva, according to an analysis by the National Information and Knowledge Center for the Fight Against the Coronavirus, which has been advising the Health Ministry.

The new restrictions in Israel will bar most people from venturing more that 100 metres (yards) from their homes. More than 2,369 Israelis have been infected, with 39 in serious condition. Five elderly Israelis with pre-existing medical conditions have died. In a televised address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged citizens to obey the stringent guidelines and warned of the need for a total lockdown if the outbreak doesn’t slow.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has ordered a full lockdown and halted travel between cities, towns and villages. Sixty cases have been reported in the West Bank and another two in Gaza. A 60-year-old woman became the West Bank’s first fatality Wednesday. She was infected by her son, who caught the virus while working in Israel, according to the Palestinian Authority.

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