Gulf countries announce measures to cut links with Iran as coronavirus cases rise in Middle East

A vistor wears a mask during the Arab Health Exhibition in Dubai, UAE in January. Gulf countries announced new measures on Tuesday to cut links with Iran to prevent coronavirus spreading. (Reuters/File photo)
Short Url
Updated 26 February 2020

Gulf countries announce measures to cut links with Iran as coronavirus cases rise in Middle East

  • The UAE suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran
  • Kuwait has canceled celebrations for national holidays on Tuesday and Wednesday

DUBAI: Gulf countries announced new measures on Tuesday to cut links with Iran to prevent coronavirus spreading after the confirmation of 20 new cases, all of them people returning from the Islamic republic.

The UAE suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran after Kuwait and Bahrain announced the additional cases of COVID-19.

Over the past two days, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman have reported 29 cases of the novel coronavirus among people returning from pilgrimages to Iran, which is battling the deadliest outbreak outside China and where the death toll has reached 16.

Bahrain also announced 15 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number affected in the kingdom to 23 — including six Saudi women — after some of the people had returned from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah in the UAE.

The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority “suspended all passenger flights and cargo to and from Iran starting today and for one week,” a statement carried by the official WAM news agency said, adding that the ban could be extended.

Also on Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted that the UAE was ready to provide all forms of support to help China combat the spread of the virus.

Shortly after, the Bahraini authorities said citizens were banned from traveling to Iran “until further notice.”

In Kuwait, three new cases were recorded among Kuwaiti men who had been under quarantine after returning from Iran. The new cases bring the total number of infected there to nine.

Oman, which on Monday reported its first cases of coronavirus in two Omani women who had returned from Iran, reported an additional two cases.

Muscat was making arrangements to bring back its citizens from the Islamic republic, the foreign ministry said, a day after it suspended all flights to and from Iran.

Oman also announced that it will suspend the import and export of goods from Iran from Wednesday.

The three countries have large Shiite Muslim populations who frequently travel to Iran to visit holy shrines.

The UAE has already announced 13 coronavirus cases, all foreigners, including an Iranian couple who had traveled from Iran.

Kuwait has canceled celebrations for national holidays on Tuesday and Wednesday and also scrapped all sports events to counter the spread of the disease.

The country's civil aviation authority said it had suspended all flights with Singapore and Japan a day after suspended flights with South Korea, Iran, Thailand, Italy and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraq shut schools and universities on Tuesday and told citizens to avoid mass gatherings, as it rushed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from its neighbour Iran, hit by what appears to be the worst outbreak outside of China.

An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus in Iraq's northern Kirkuk province. They were the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease, a day after an Iranian theology student in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf became Iraq's first confirmed case.

Measures to curb the spread could have major political repercussions in Iraq, where around 500 people have been killed in anti-government street demonstrations since last year. A populist cleric called off plans on Tuesday for a "million-man" demonstration.

The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from Iran and China, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.

On Tuesday the government urged Iraqis to avoid all public gatherings and announced a range of measures to curb them. Gatherings were banned outright in Najaf, one of the most heavily-visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Schools and universities were shut, for 10 days in Najaf and indefinitely in Kirkuk. The autonomous northern Kurdish region cancelled all education until after a March 20 holiday.

(With AFP and Reuters)


In Iraq, no resting place for coronavirus dead

Updated 38 min 36 sec ago

In Iraq, no resting place for coronavirus dead

  • In Islam, a person must be buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours
  • Rejections of burials have continued, including in the two shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf

BAGHDAD: For Saad Malik, losing his father to the novel coronavirus was only the beginning of his nightmare. For over a week, cemeteries across Iraq refused to allow the elderly man’s burial.
Fearing the respiratory illness could somehow spread from the corpses to nearby population centers, Iraqi religious authorities, tribes and townspeople have sent the bodies of COVID-19 victims back to hospital morgues, where they are piling up.
“We couldn’t hold a funeral for him and haven’t been able to bury his body, even though it’s been more than a week since he died,” Malik said, his voice laced with bitterness.
Armed men claiming to be tribal leaders threatened Malik, his family and his friends, saying they would set fire to his car if they tried to bury the body in their area.
“Can you imagine that across this huge country Iraq, there aren’t a few square meters to bury a small number of bodies?”
In Islam, a person must be buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours. 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 April 11, urging citizens to stay at home and adopt rigorous hygiene routines to forestall the spread of the virus.
But in some areas, local powers are getting even stricter.
Northeast of the capital Baghdad this week, tribal figures prevented a team of health ministry officials from burying four bodies in a cemetery the state had specifically designated for COVID-19 victims.
When the delegation tried to take the bodies to another burial ground southeast of Baghdad, dozens of local townspeople turned out in protest.
Ultimately, the bodies were returned to the morgue.
One Iraqi living near Baghdad said “we decided to block any burials in our area.”
“We panicked over (the health of) our children and families.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the global response to the pandemic, coronavirus is transmitted through droplets and surface contact.
There is no scientific evidence yet that it could spread via corpses, according to Iraqi health ministry spokesman Seif Al-Badr.
He said the government was taking all possible precautions when burying bodies, including wrapping them in bags, disinfecting them and placing them in special coffins.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric, has said those who lost their lives to the disease must be wrapped in three shrouds and insisted authorities facilitate burials.
But rejections of burials have continued, including in the two shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf, where one of the world’s largest cemeteries is located.
An Iraqi medic in Najaf said the health ministry had tried to intervene directly to convince Najaf authorities to allow burials of COVID-19 victims, to no avail.
The medic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had witnessed one widower beg authorities to release his wife’s body.
“Just give me the body and I’ll bury her in my own home,” the heartbroken husband had said.
“This is the situation after just 40 deaths. What happens if it gets worse? Where will we put the bodies?” the medic asked.
Many in Iraq have been bracing themselves for a rise in cases in the weeks ahead, but the country’s hospitals are ill-prepared to deal with large numbers.
They have been ravaged by decades of conflict and have received little investment in recent years, leaving them woefully bereft of medicine and equipment.
Doctors, too, have been threatened, kidnapped and even killed in recent years over ransoms or under pressure from relatives of patients.
According to the WHO, there are only 14 hospital beds in Iraq for every 10,000 people.
By way of comparison, France — currently overwhelmed by the spreading virus — has 60 beds for every 10,000 people.
To try to fill the gap, Iraqis are stepping up with inventions of their own.
Medical engineer Moqtada Al-Zubaidi has created a hospital bed encased in plexiglass, which includes a respirator with oxygen tanks, an air conditioning unit, a bell to ring nurses and a flat-screen television.
“It’s an invention with humanitarian purposes. We proposed the name ‘the bed of life’ because it provides security and reassurance to people who are sick,” he said.
Zubaidi is awaiting approval from the health ministry to produce more beds, which cost $4,000 each.
But for many fellow Iraqis disheartened by the rising death toll, such measures may be too little, too late.
Salem Al-Shummary, Malik’s cousin, had tried to help Malik bury his father and was left scarred by the experience.
“We’re not fazed by death anymore. We just have one dream: to bury our dead,” he said.

Related