- The Washington Times
Sunday, March 8, 2020

Italy began enforcing a lockdown over an estimated 16 million people, Saudi Arabia quarantined a key oil-producing province, and the death toll in Iran jumped to nearly 200 on Sunday as governments worldwide scrambled anew in the face of an escalating coronavirus outbreak.

China, Italy, South Korea and Iran remain the nations reporting the highest number of cases — China with more than 81,000 and the others with about 6,500 to 7,500 — although fears of a wider outbreak in the Middle East sent markets reeling over the weekend.

The U.S. confirmed more than 500 cases and 21 deaths — all but three in the county surrounding Seattle — as of Sunday night.

The U.S. outbreak accounted for only a small fraction of the global total. Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed nearly 110,000 confirmed cases and 3,700 deaths.

Nearly 61,000 people are confirmed to have recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and China represents roughly 75% of the world’s cases. Still, global awareness and panic over the flulike disease continued to spike.

Many nations ramped up action after World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a plea Thursday for governments to realize “this is not a drill” and to begin “pulling out all the stops” to try to contain the outbreak.

The goal appears to be slowing what some see as an inevitable global spread of the virus.

President Trump signed an $8.3 billion measure Friday to help tackle the outbreak, most immediately by bringing U.S. medical facilities up to speed with other nations in making testing available. Mr. Trump toured the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he praised the agency’s work in developing a test to be rapidly deployed to facilities nationwide.

The president also cautioned that “our [infection] numbers are going to go up.” He said he was particularly concerned about the effects of a contaminated cruise ship slated to dock Monday in Oakland, California.

CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said Friday that there is “no doubt we’re going to see more community cases” in the United States, although he assessed that the overall risk to the general American public remains low.

The situation in some other parts of the world is far more dire. The Italian government on Sunday became the first to embrace China’s model of imposing lockdowns over entire cities and regions to prevent the movement of millions of people.

After Italy’s biggest one-day jump in infections, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a quarantine decree for the country’s prosperous north — an extraordinary measure that will be in place until April 3.

Areas under lockdown include Milan, Italy’s financial hub and the main city in Lombardy, and Venice, the tourism epicenter and main city in the neighboring Veneto region.

The reality that weddings, museums, shopping malls and restaurants will be impacted sent panic swirling among residents, business owners and tourists on Sunday as they scrambled for information about how the restrictions will be enforced.

“There will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory,” Mr. Conte said. “Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”

According to the latest Johns Hopkins University data, Italy had 7,375 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 365 deaths. The outbreak is notably less severe in other corners of Western Europe, including France and Germany, which have 1,126 and 1,018 confirmed cases respectively.

The fate of foreign visitors stuck in Italy’s quarantine zones was not clear as of Sunday night. The Associated Press reported that travelers were cramming aboard standing-room-only trains, tucking their faces into scarves and sharing sanitizing gel.

Saudi Arabia also made global headlines Sunday. Reuters reported that Riyadh had suspended schools and universities nationwide and imposed a temporary lockdown on the eastern oil-producing province of Qatif — home to all 11 people in the kingdom who have tested positive for infection from the coronavirus.

The Saudis had already closed off the holiest sites in Islam to foreign pilgrims, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

The kingdom didn’t even make that move during the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

It is not known whether the Qatif lockdown may impact Saudi oil production, although some reports warned Sunday of potential social unrest in the province, which is home to a large Shiite Muslim population. The Sunni Muslim majority Saudi monarchy has a tense relationship with its Shiite minority, as well as with the Middle East’s Shiite powerhouse of Iran.

The wider Middle East now has over 6,980 confirmed coronavirus infections. The vast majority are in Iran, where the reported death toll jumped by 25% Sunday to 194 out of 6,566 confirmed cases.

The other highest number in the region is in Bahrain. The tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran has confirmed 85 cases.

Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix is slated to run this month without spectators in the stands. Organizers announced Sunday that the race will be televised March 22. Many saw it as the latest development to rock the region’s tourism market.

With several nations cutting back regional and international airline routes in recent days, analysts say, the negative economic impact of the outbreak could be disastrous.

Middle East stock markets fell sharply Sunday amid lower crude oil demand as the outbreak cut more deeply into air travel. The situation was not helped Friday by a failure between OPEC and key ally Russia to agree on a cut to oil production.

In Iran, meanwhile, at least one lawmaker has died from COVID-19. Agence France-Presse cited Iranian state-run news agency IRNA as reporting that Fatemeh Rahbar, 55, a conservative member of parliament recently elected from Tehran, died Saturday.

IRNA separately reported that seven people died in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz from drinking toxic methanol alcohol out of the false belief that it could cure COVID-19. The agency quoted deputy prosecutor Ali Beiranvand as saying 48 others had been hospitalized, with some going blind.

Iran’s government-run Fars News Agency reported Sunday that more than 2,100 people in the nation had recovered from COVID-19, but U.S. officials cast suspicion on the veracity of the Iranian government’s reporting.

The same is true of North Korea, which shares a border with China and is suspected to be reeling from an underreported coronavirus outbreak. North Korean state media said Friday that Pyongyang had released about 220 foreigners from a quarantine imposed as part of its prevention efforts.

The country has not publicly disclosed any confirmed cases of the virus.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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