Israel braces for first fatalities as coronavirus numbers rise

JERUSALEM — Israel braced for its first fatalities as the number of coronavirus cases spiked by 25% on Wednesday while Iraqis in Baghdad hunkered down as a week-long government-imposed curfew took effect and Iran pressed on with its struggle to control the Mideast’s worst outbreak.

Israel’s health ministry said 90 more people had tested positive for the new coronavirus, bringing the country’s overall number to 427, a day after authorities issued a new series of guidelines that put Israelis in near-shutdown mode.

There have been no fatalities so far but with 15 patients in moderate to serious conditions and the number of those infected exponentially rising in recent days, authorities have taken severe measures to stem the spread, warning of catastrophic consequences and thousands of deaths if people don’t follow instructions.

“We have seen what is happening in other countries that did not take these steps. Thousands around the world have already died. As prime minister, I must tell you the truth. To my joy, we have not lost anyone. However, this will not continue,” a severe-looking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Tuesday in his daily address to the nation. “This is a huge crisis. We are only at the start of the campaign.”

The new coronavirus has spread to more than 100 countries, infected more than 195,000 people worldwide and killed more than 7,800. For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Fearing outbreaks like those that have ravaged Italy, Iran and other nations, Israel has taken extreme measures. The government has called for most citizens to work from home, maintain a strict distance from others and only leave their homes under crucial circumstances, such as for medical needs or stocking up on food and medicine. The Defence Ministry has deployed near-empty hotel facilities, ravaged by the crash in tourism, as recovery centres for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Most controversially, the government has instructed the shadowy Shin Bet internal security service to start deploying the agency’s phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Israel, a move that sparked widespread criticism from lawmakers and civil rights groups.

Tens of thousands of Israelis are in home quarantine, including two Cabinet ministers and two other lawmakers who have came in contact with an infected local politician. Police have begun making arrests of those violating a ban on public gatherings larger than 10. A large drive-thru facility has also been erected in Tel Aviv to increase testing capabilities.

“The number will rise no matter what we do,” Israel Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said Tuesday night.” We might soon have hundreds of newly infected people per day, and people may start dying from this, maybe in the next few days …. we know we could have hundreds of people dying from the disease, maybe even thousands.”

The Palestinians have reported 44 cases in the West Bank, most from an outbreak in Bethlehem.

Iran has been the hardest hit country in the region, with nearly 1,000 dead and roughly 90% of the over 18,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the Middle East. It’s leadership announced Tuesday that “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep travelling and ignore health guidance.

In Iraq, a week-long curfew went into effect in Baghdad where streets were largely empty of both people and cars, and most shops were closed. Only pedestrians were allowed on the streets to buy necessary foodstuffs and medicine, and heavily armed Iraqi police were seen patrolling the city and setting up roadblocks.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the hub of Iraq’s anti-government protest movement, issued a collective statement that they were suspending protest activities to help stop the spread of the virus.

Iraq has had 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.

As global stock markets remain volatile, the United Arab Emirates’ Securities and Commodities Authority announced early Wednesday that local exchanges would only be able to fluctuate 5% before being shut down. The state-run WAM news agency quoted Economic Minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri as described the decision as an effort to “mitigate market losses amid a free fall in share prices on coronavirus concerns.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies may hold an extraordinary virtual meeting next week about advancing a co-ordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, which currently leads the G20 presidency, said it is communicating with countries to convene the virtual meeting of leaders.

The kingdom said in a statement Wednesday the Group of 20 countries will act in any way deemed necessary to alleviate the impact of the pandemic and will put forward a co-ordinated set of policies to protect people and safeguard the global economy.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has come under criticism by some officials around the world, including members of the U.S. Congress, over its moves to ramp up oil production to more than 11 million barrels a day after an agreement with major oil producer Russia fell apart. The Saudi decision to flood the market sent oil prices plummeting below $30 a barrel at a time when markets around the world are also plunging.

In Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who this week visited China along with the country’s president Arif Alvi, said he is protectively quarantining himself on his physician’s advice.

The new virus has also sickened at least 237 people, mostly those pilgrims who returned from Iran in recent weeks.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Iraq and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan 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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