Virus toll in Iran climbs as lockdowns deepen across Mideast

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People wearing face masks exercise on the shore of an artificial lake, in Western Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Many people in Tehran shrugged off warnings over the new coronavirus as authorities complained that most people in the capital are not treating the crisis seriously enough. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran reported another 129 fatalities from the new coronavirus on Monday, the largest one-day rise in deaths since it began battling the Middle East’s worst outbreak, which has claimed more than 850 lives and infected a number of senior officials in the country.

Businesses in Iran’s capital remained open, however, even as other countries in the region grounded planes, sealed their borders and moved toward full lockdowns.

The divergent approaches adopted by local authorities reflect continued uncertainty over how to slow the spread of a virus that has infected around 180,000 people worldwide and caused more than 700 deaths.

Israel, where the number of confirmed cases has nearly tripled to 298 in recent days, has authorized the use of phone-snooping technology long used against Palestinian militants to track coronavirus patients.

“These measures will help us greatly to locate the virus, the location of the infected, and thereby halt the spread of the virus,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address late Monday, adding that they would be temporary.

He said the Cabinet had debated the measures for six hours and agreed on strict oversight. But such practices are likely to spark renewed debate over government surveillance and privacy rights as countries adopt them in the face of the pandemic.

Most people experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

In Iraq, people raced to supermarkets and swiftly emptied shelves after the government announced a weeklong curfew beginning late Tuesday. All flights from Baghdad’s international airport will also be suspended. Iraq has reported 124 cases and nine deaths.

In Lebanon, where the government ordered a lockdown, traffic was thin and some streets were completely empty. Restaurants, cafes and bars have been closed since last week and most private businesses were shuttered Monday. The tiny country has reported 99 cases and three deaths.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have been largely in disarray since anti-government protests broke out last year, and Lebanon was mired in its worst financial crisis in years even before the pandemic began.

In Iran, which has close ties to both Iraq and Lebanon, authorities have reported 14,991 confirmed cases and 853 deaths. Monday’s jump in fatalities was the largest one-day rise since the epidemic began. The real numbers may be even higher, as some have questioned the government’s reporting.

Many Iranians have dismissed fears about the virus and advice to avoid social contact. Restaurants and cafes have remained open, though business has diminished.

On Monday, Iran closed the Masoume shrine, a major pilgrimage site in the city of Qom, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak. Authorities were already restricting access and barring pilgrims from kissing or touching the shrine, but it had remained open.

Authorities also waited until Monday to close the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, which draws 25 million Shiite pilgrims a year, including many from neighboring Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A member of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint or dismiss Iran’s supreme leader, died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus, the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported Monday.

Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei, 78, is the latest of several Iranian officials to have died. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials have caught the virus.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 80 years old and has been in power since 1989, wore disposable gloves at a recent public event.

The official leading Iran’s response to the virus on Sunday expressed concerns that health facilities could be overwhelmed if the rate of new cases continues to climb.

Egypt has reported 166 cases, including at least 70 foreigners, and four deaths, including two German tourists. It suspended all flights in and out of the country starting Thursday and lasting until the end of the month.

Israel’s Health Ministry said more than 1,000 doctors and a similar number of nurses have been quarantined. The health care system is already suffering from budget limitations linked to the prolonged political deadlock in Israel, which has not had a permanent government in more than a year.

Israel swore in its new Knesset, or parliament, after elections earlier this month. The 120 members took the oath of office in groups of three, in keeping with bans on large gatherings.

But Netanyahu said he hoped he would not have to order a generalized lockdown, and would confine such measures to specific areas with many cases.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said anyone entering would be placed in quarantine for 14 days. The Palestinians have reported nearly 40 cases, most linked to an outbreak in Bethlehem.

Jordan said travelers arriving in the country will be quarantined at hotels on the Dead Sea and in the Red Sea city of Aqaba. Health Minister Jaber Saad said the popular tourist area along the Dead Sea would be isolated and administered by the military.

Jordan has reported 23 cases, one of whom recovered.

Bars and pubs will be closed in Dubai through the end of the month, and authorities ordered people not to hold parties in their homes. Saudi Arabia closed malls, cafes and parks, allowing only grocery stores and pharmacies to stay open and limiting restaurants to delivery.

Pakistan meanwhile reported a surge of new cases, bringing its total to 183. Of those, around 150 are from the southern Sindh province bordering Iran, where authorities have quarantined 4,000 recent arrivals from Iran.

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Kullab reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Zeina Karam in Beirut; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad 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.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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