Pandemic update

Corona across the Islamic world – the toll of COVID-19

While some are beginning to protest the lockdown, others are unable to bury their loved ones in accordance with Islam. Here’s the latest from across the region

Algeria

Algeria will impose a curfew in nine more provinces to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the prime minister's office said last Friday. At the beginning of this week the government imposed a curfew in the capital and a full lockdown in the neighbouring province of Blida.

Tunisia

Several hundred Tunisians demonstrated in a working class district of the capital on 31 March, demanding government support and protesting a week-old lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the poor. "Never mind coronavirus, we're going to die anyway! Let us work!" shouted one protester.

The European Union has granted Tunisia 250 million euros in aid to help it cope with the economic and social effects of the coronavirus outbreak, EU ambassador Patrice Bergamini said on Saturday in a tweet.

Tunisia, which suffers from limited health infrastructure, is fighting to contain the outbreak after it said it had 312 confirmed cases and ten deaths. Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said last week that the government was allocating $850 million to combat the economic and social effects of the health crisis.

Libya

Five more cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Libya taking the total to eight.

The National Centre for Disease Control said the new cases were in the north-western city of Misrata, held by the Government of National Accord (GNA) which is at war with the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar. In chaos and without central authority since the 2011, Western-backed uprising that ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is poorly placed to withstand any epidemic.

Egypt

Egyptian banks have been instructed to apply temporary limits on daily withdrawals and deposits in a move seemingly designed to control inflation and hoarding during the coronavirus' spread.

The daily limit for individuals would be 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($635) and 50,000 pounds for companies, a central bank statement said, though businesses will be exempt from the withdrawal limits if the money is used to pay employees. The central bank has also limited daily ATM withdrawals and deposits to 5,000 pounds, it said in a statement.

Egypt will extend a suspension of flights for two weeks from 1 April, the minister for state information said on 31 March. Flights at Egyptian airports were suspended on 19 March and the stoppage had been due to last until the end of the month. Flights allowing tourists to return to their countries have been allowed to continue.

Egypt reported 33 new coronavirus cases and four fatalities on 29 March, bringing the total to 609 confirmed infections and 40 deaths.

Sudan

Sudan released 4,217 prisoners on 25 March as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, state news agency SUNA said, citing a health ministry official who said those freed had been tested for possible infections.

Sudan, which is in the middle of an economic crisis and transition after the toppling of veteran ruler Omar al-Bashir last year, has confirmed three cases of the coronavirus.

Its health system is in a poor state after years without investment and an exodus of doctors to seek work in Gulf Arab countries.

Turkey

More than 200 people have died from COVID-19 in Turkey, which has ramped up tests to more than 15,000 a day, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced on 31 March. Koca shared the latest figures on Twitter, saying that 46 people had died in the last 24 hours, raising the country's overall death toll to 214.

With 2,704 more cases of the novel coronavirus, the official total of those infected has reached 13,531.

"The number of tests has increased by 25.2 percent compared with yesterday," Koca said. Health officials are identifying positive cases faster and with more accuracy, he added.

Turkish officials have repeatedly urged citizens to stay home and respect social distancing rules, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan advising Turks to adopt "voluntary quarantine" conditions.

On 31 March, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 50 towns and areas in 21 cities across the country had been placed under quarantine, but Turkey has stopped short of declaring a nationwide lockdown.

Jordan

The severe curfew imposed by King Abdullah on 23 March which saw the closing of shops, bakeries and even pharmacies was relaxed on 27 March.

The kingdom had imposed an indefinite curfew to stop the spread of the coronavirus, closing all shops and institutions and leaving people with no way to buy food.

Since 25 March, however, people have been allowed to leave their homes from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to run essential errands.

Jordan registered its first death in the kingdom due to the novel coronavirus at the weekend. The director of Prince Hamzah Hospital, Abdulrazaq Khashman, announced the death of an 83-year-old woman. 

"The octogenarian woman, has suffered from blood poisoning when she was transferred from a private hospital to the Prince Hamzah Hospital," the agency quoted Khashman as saying.

Jordan has reported 212 coronavirus cases.

Syria

The European Union announced almost 240 million euros (263.3 million dollars) in additional aid for Syrian refugees living in neighbouring Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon on Tuesday, noting that the funds should help people face off the coronavirus outbreak.

The money focusses in particular on areas such as social assistance, health, education and child protection. It brings the EU's overall regional refugee aid – excluding funds for Turkey – to more than 2 billion euros, according to a European Commission statement.

Lebanon

Lebanese authorities said on 31 March that they would allow expatriates to return despite a lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a move that could affect up to 20,000 people. The cabinet gave its initial approval for the proposal, which could be put in motion "in principle" from Sunday, a government statement said, without giving details of how it would be implemented.

An estimated 20,000 people "want to return to Lebanon", Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti told local television.

Beirut's international airport has been closed for nearly two weeks, along with schools, universities, restaurants and bars, and Lebanese have been urged to stay at home to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Lebanon has reported 463 official cases of the virus and 12 deaths.

Israel

An Israeli parliamentary committee on 31 March approved the collection of personal data on citizens by domestic spy agencies, a controversial measure enacted for the purpose of battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier in March the government authorised the internal security agency Shin Bet to collect information from private cell phones to facilitate Israel's response to the new coronavirus, which has infected more than 4,800 people in the country.

Rights groups challenged the measure and the supreme court ordered parliament to create an oversight committee to consider whether to authorise the digital surveillance.

Gaza

Queen Tex factory in Gaza used to specialise in manufacturing shirts and jeans, but with the novel coronavirus epidemic sweeping the globe it has pivoted into medical wear. Now lines of men are using old sewing machines to stitch together masks while also wearing them, as the blockaded Palestinian enclave develops a homegrown response to the crisis.

"We were intending to import masks and suits from China but there were difficulties importing, so we decided to make them ourselves," manager Hassan Alwan said. His factory says it works to international standards but only has enough material to make around 1,000 hazmat suits.

The Gaza Strip has only had a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases so far.

The suits, masks and gloves are being made initially for the local market, with the potential to later export to Israel which is fighting a far larger outbreak.

Iran

France, Germany and Britain have made the first use of a bartering mechanism set up to circumvent US sanctions against Iran, so they could send medical supplies to the crisis-hit
country, the German Foreign Office said on Tuesday.

The delivery is a breakthrough in long-running European attempts to activate the INSTEX mechanism, aimed at enabling legitimate trade with Iran, despite the U.S. sanctions. The supplies have arrived in Iran, the German Foreign Office confirmed, adding that INSTEX was working on further transactions with its Iranian counterpart organisation, STFI.

Iran is home to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks globally, with nearly 45,000 cases of infection and around 2,900 deaths, according to the latest figures from the Iranian Health Ministry.

President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that the country's state of emergency – which has closed schools, shuttered stores and restricted movement – could be extended beyond its current April 8 expiry date.

Iraq

Fearing the respiratory illness could somehow spread from the corpses to nearby population centres, Iraqi religious authorities, tribes and townspeople have sent the bodies of COVID-19 victims back to hospital morgues, where they are piling up. In Islam, a person must be buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours, while cremation is strictly prohibited.

Iraq has confirmed more than 500 COVID-19 cases and 42 deaths from the respiratory disease, but the real numbers are likely much higher as few of the country's 40 million people have been tested.

Authorities have declared a countrywide lockdown until 11 April, urging citizens to stay at home and adopt rigorous hygiene routines to forestall the spread of the virus.

Saudi Arabia & Kuwait

The world's last major coronavirus outbreak, in 2012, began in Saudi Arabia, where a faltering response allowed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to kill several hundred people and spread across the region. This time around, the kingdom was better prepared, public health officials say.

Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Kuwait took drastic measures early on to contain the new  pandemic, halting air travel, imposing curfews, and quarantining and testing thousands of people. Saudi Arabia has reported 1,453 infections and eight deaths while Kuwait recorded no fatalities among 266 cases. Initial outbreaks in both countries were linked to foreign travel.

The World Health Organisation said Saudi Arabia's "whole of government" approach had benefited from the MERS experience and "unique expertise" in emergency preparedness from managing the
haj pilgrimage, the world's largest annual gathering of Muslims.

India

A large religious gathering involving around 8000 people in New Delhi sparked a manhunt across India for suspected coronavirus cases after being linked to dozens of infections and at least ten deaths. The gathering emerged as one of India's major virus hotspots after thousands flocked to an Islamic religious centre in the Nizamuddin West neighbourhood of Delhi.

Some returned home to other states after the gathering, but many remained in the vicinity, saying they were trapped because public transport had been shut down due to the virus. Late on Monday and Tuesday, the warren of lanes near the religious centre – near several prominent Sufi shrines – were taped off by officials in hazmat suits.

The overall number of Covid-19 cases in India crossed the 1,000 mark at the beginning of the week, even as the government said there were no plans to prolong the three-week nationwide lockdown.

The total number of positive cases had climbed to 1,251 by 31 March, according to the federal Health Ministry. Of these, 32 had died.

Pakistan

Pakistan's government has called on authorities not to treat coronavirus patients as "criminals" while enforcing social-distancing measures to control the spread of virus.

"Coronavirus patients will no longer be treated as criminals," Planning Minister Asad Umar told the press on 31 March, adding that this approach discouraged people from coming forward to be tested.

Umar's intervention followed reports that Pakistani police and other law enforcement agencies had been tracking down anyone with a history of international travel. Some had been forced into quarantine, regardless of whether coronavirus had been confirmed, the reports said.

Pakistan has seen a steady increase in coronavirus cases over the past week despite a nationwide lockdown. On Tuesday, Health Minister Zafar Mirza confirmed 1,865 cases and 25 deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The country had a further 15,709 suspected cases, with more than 8,000 currently in quarantine, the ministry said.

Indonesia

Indonesia will release about 30,000 prisoners early, to curb the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, the country's Justice Ministry said on Tuesday.

Indonesia recorded 1,528 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, with 136 deaths, the Health Ministry said. The capital, Jakarta, is the epicentre of the outbreak, with 747 confirmed cases and 83 deaths.

(AP/Reuters/AFP)

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