Pandemic Locks Aid Group Out of Mideast Conflict Zones

Spraying disinfectant on the Great Pyramids in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

An international aid group said Wednesday that closures aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic are preventing the group from reaching 300,000 people in conflict zones across the Middle East, as the virus arrived in war-torn Libya and case counts rose in Syria and the Gaza Strip, among the world’s most vulnerable places.

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.

The crowded Gaza Strip reported seven new coronavirus cases late Wednesday among security workers, raising the total to nine and stoking concerns about the capacity of its weakened health system to manage coronavirus patients.

Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping measures to prevent its spread, including closing their borders, canceling 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 news showed police patrolling the empty streets of Damascus and other main cities.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of Yehudah and Shomron, has ordered a full lockdown and halted travel between cities, towns and villages. Sixty-two cases have been reported in the region, along with the nine in Gaza. A 60-year-old woman became the area’s first fatality Wednesday.

At least 3,000 workers came home on Wednesday, said Shahir Saed, head of the workers’ union, after the Palestinian leadership ordered all 65,000 Palestinian workers to return to their homes from workplace accomodations in Israel.

In Libya, authorities tracked down and quarantined dozens of people who had come into contact with the country’s first confirmed case, a 73-year-old man who entered from neighboring Tunisia on March 5 after traveling to Saudi Arabia. Health officials said he was in stable condition.

Libya has been mired in chaos since the 2011 uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It is governed by rival authorities based in Tripoli and eastern Libya whose forces have been battling over the capital for nearly a year. The capital’s suburbs came under heavy fire even as the United Nations appealed for a truce so authorities could focus on the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the eastern city of Benghazi began a two-week lockdown Wednesday, although authorities have allowed residents to buy food and medicine for two hours each morning.

Streets in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, emptied Wednesday at 7 p.m. as a nationwide nighttime curfew took effect. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi appealed to citizens on social media to stay inside and “preserve our safety.” Egypt has confirmed 456 cases and 22 fatalities, including two senior military officers who were involved in efforts to disinfect public places.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the region, with over 27,000 confirmed cases and a death toll of at least 2,077. Authorities have advised people to stay at home but have not imposed the kinds of lockdowns seen elsewhere. News footage showed people thronging the streets Monday night, ignoring social-distancing warnings. President Hassan Rouhani imposed new restrictions on parks, saying he was left with “no other choice.”

War-ravaged Afghanistan imposed a lockdown on its western Herat province, which borders Iran and where the largest number of cases has been detected. Afghan authorities have reported 76 cases and two deaths. The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has reported four cases among soldiers who recently arrived in Kabul.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, expanded its curfew hours in the cities of Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s holiest sites, as well as the capital, Riyadh. Residents now must remain inside their homes from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. The kingdom, which has reported 900 cases, also banned travel between three governorates.

As community transmission appears to take off in Pakistan, which has confirmed 1,000 cases and seven deaths, the country halted all domestic passenger flights beginning Thursday.

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad carrier, one of the biggest in the Middle East, said it has had to cut salaries by 25-50% due to the grounding of its passenger flights.