Iran will recognize doctors and nurses who die combating the new coronavirus as "martyrs" like slain soldiers, the country's supreme leader announced Tuesday as the outbreak killed 54 more people and pushed the nation's death toll to 291.
The decision by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comes amid a propaganda campaign already trying to link the fight against the virus to Iran's long, bloody 1980s war with Iraq. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over, even as more people die from drinking methanol in the false belief it kills the virus.
Across the Mideast, over 8,600 people have contracted the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. The majority come from hard-hit Iran, which has one of the world's worst death tolls outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
For most people, the new coronavirus 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. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and over 58,000 have so far recovered.
On Tuesday, Iranian Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour offered new casualty figures for the virus, which represented an 18% increase in deaths from the day before and 12% more confirmed cases.
Jahanpour warned figures in Iran likely will continue to rise before the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on March 20. He urged people to limit their travel, which already has been difficult for police manning checkpoints on roads between major cities. Iran has yet to take widespread quarantine decisions like China and Italy.
"The rate of spreading disease is still rising," Jahanpour told a televised news conference.
Khamenei meanwhile announced that those who die medically combating the virus will be considered martyrs in the Islamic Republic. The families of martyrs, typically from the security services and armed forces, receive payments and benefits from the state. It also bestows a sense of religious importance on those fighting the virus in the Shiite theocracy, which experts fear may be under reporting the total number of cases.
Khamenei separately announced he would not be giving his annual Nowruz speech in the holy Shiite city of Mashhad.
A rumor circulating in Iran that alcohol can treat coronavirus has so far led to 37 deaths and sent 270 people to the hospital after being poisoned by bootleg alcohol, the state-run IRNA news agency said Tuesday.
Alcoholic beverages are illegal in Iran, but homemade brews in the southern city of Ahvaz apparently substituted toxic methanol for ethanol and used bleach to mask the color, Health Ministry official Ali Ehsanpour said.
Seven bootleggers have been identified and arrested, said Ali Beiranvand, the deputy prosecutor in Ahvaz.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Lebanon had its first known coronavirus death, a Health Ministry official said. The official said the 56-year-old man had recently returned from Egypt. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
Lebanese Minister of Culture Abbas Murtada separately ordered all museums closed until further notice because of coronavirus, according to state-run national news agency. Lebanon, like other Mideast nations, has closed schools and universities over the virus.
There were 59 confirmed cases as of Monday in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, including one fatality, a German tourist. Outside Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and now Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Mideast.
Hardest hit in Egypt was the ancient city of Luxor, which a WHO representative described Tuesday as being under strict government scrutiny. Dr. Jean Yaacoub Jabbour told The Associated Press that his agency is working with the Egyptian government to trace the cases and those who interacted with them, including the cases found aboard a Nile cruise ship.
"They have widened their investigation fully in order to reach and to trace all contacts ... , and also they are taking measures on the spot, for example this boat being in isolation, a self-isolation facility, taking care of all people inside," he said.
Egypt's government has announced a temporary ban on large public gatherings and all events involving people's movement between cities. Egypt's soccer association said Tuesday all soccer games in the country would be played in empty stadiums until further notice.
Saudi Arabia closed off air and sea travel to 14 countries affected by the new virus Monday, while Israel ordered two weeks of home quarantine for anyone arriving from overseas. The outbreak in Israel has been largely contained, but it has begun to gain pace in recent days, with a total of 58 cases diagnosed as of Tuesday. There are 26 confirmed cases in the Palestinian Territories.
Regionwide, stock markets largely posted gains Tuesday after major losses the day prior.
Kuwait has decided to suspend all flights with seven countries for one week as part of the precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Kuwaiti government said Saturday.
The decision was made at an emergency meeting of the Kuwaiti government on Friday night, and the seven countries are Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
All arrivals who are of these nationalities or have a valid residency in these countries, as well as non-Kuwaitis who have entered or transited in these countries during the past two weeks, will be denied access into Kuwait, according to the government decision.
The number of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kuwait has grown to 61, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Health.
An official with Iran's Revolutionary Guard who took part in battles around war-torn Syria was killed near the Syrian capital, an Iranian semiofficial news agency and an opposition war monitor reported Saturday.
Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency identified the commander as Farhad Dabirian and said he was killed in the south Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab. The area is home to a holy shrine for Shiite Muslims.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the killing and Fars reported no additional details on how Dabirian was killed.
Iran is an ally of Syria and has offered military advisers and sent militiamen and material support to help President Bashar Assad's government forces in the nine-year civil war.
Fars said Dabirian was a commander of the battle to retake the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, also reported that Dabirian was killed Friday night without saying how. It added that the late commander was close to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group.
In recent years, Israel has repeatedly carried out airstrikes in Syria against targets belonging to Iran and its regional proxies. One airstrike last month killed two members of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran.
Iran will set up checkpoints to limit travel between major cities and urged citizens on Thursday to reduce their use of paper money to fight a spreading outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has killed at least 107 people across the Islamic Republic.
The announcement in Iran came as Palestinian authorities said the storied Nativity Church in the biblical city of Bethlehem, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, will close indefinitely later in the day over coronavirus fears. The church was expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors and worshipers next month for the upcoming Easter holiday.
These mark the latest disruptions of life across the Mideast from the new virus, which has seen over 3,740 confirmed cases.
Iran's Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced his country's new restrictions at a televised press conference. He added that schools and universities will remain closed through Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 20.
He said people should stay in their vehicles at gas stations and allow attendants to fill their gas tanks to avoid the spread of the virus.
Iran and Italy have the world's highest death tolls outside of China.
The Palestinian Health Ministry meanwhile said it was preventing all tourists from entering the West Bank. The ministry did not specify for how long. Most tourists to the West Bank visit the biblical city of Bethlehem, where the Nativity Church is located, and Jericho.
The measures come after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the new coronavirus. A Palestinian official said the four had tested positive for the virus but that the tests were sent to Israel to verify the results. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with the media. They would be the Palestinian territories' first cases if confirmed.
The Palestinian Health Ministry also said churches and places of worship in Bethlehem will be closed for two weeks.
Earlier Thursday, the United Arab Emirates warned its citizens and its foreign residents not to travel anywhere abroad amid the ongoing worldwide coronavirus outbreak, a stark warning for a country home to two major long-haul airlines.
The country's Health and Community Protection Ministry warning comes as its capital, Abu Dhabi, sent 215 foreigners it evacuated from hard-hit Hubei in China to a quarantine set up in its Emirates Humanitarian City. They include citizens of Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.
Health officials warned that those traveling abroad could face quarantine themselves at the discretion of authorities. The UAE is home to some 9 million people, with only about 1 million estimated to be Emirati citizens.
The UAE is home to Emirates, the government-owned airline based at Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest for international travel. Abu Dhabi also is home to Etihad, the country's national carrier. Both airlines have encouraged staff to take time off as international travel has dropped due to the virus.
The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted Islamic worship in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia on Wednesday banned its citizens and other residents of the kingdom from performing the pilgrimage in Mecca, while Iran canceled Friday prayers in major cities.
The Israeli military on Thursday said its forces demolished the homes of two Palestinians accused of being behind a deadly blast in the West Bank last year.
Israel says Walid Hanatsheh and Yazan Mughamis were part of a cell that carried out the attack in August, which killed 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb and injured her father and brother as they hiked down to a spring in the occupied West Bank.
Hanatsheh and Mughamis, along with other alleged members of the cell, are currently facing trial in an Israeli court.
Bulldozers tore down one home in the West Bank city of Bir Zeit. At the second home in the city of Ramallah, soldiers used jackhammers to destroy the interior walls of the apartment.
During the operation early Thursday, the military said dozens of Palestinians burned tires and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli forces. It said its forces responded with "riot dispersal means," which usually means tear gas and stun grenades.
Israel says demolishing the family homes of alleged militants deters violence. Critics say the tactic amounts to collective punishment.