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New coronavirus threatens both rich, poor across Mideast

The new coronavirus is continuing its spread across some of the most-vulnerable nations of the Middle East and as the International Monetary Fund warns that a lack of medical supplies in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen could lead to a surge in prices

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The new coronavirus continued its spread across some of the most-vulnerable nations of the Mideast on Tuesday as the International Monetary Fund warned that a lack of medical supplies in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen could lead to a surge in prices.

There are over 31,000 confirmed cases of the virus across the Mideast, the vast majority in the hard-hit nation of Iran. While most recover from the virus and the COVID-19 illness that it causes, bottoming crude oil prices have put additional strain on even the wealthiest countries of the region. That in turn could affect their ability to spend on needed supplies as the virus challenges medical systems worldwide.

Already, countries have reacted by either urging or ordering hundreds of millions of people to stay home.

The IMF, which traditionally has urged governments to implement greater austerity measures, now urges Mideast governments to offer temporary tax relief and cash transfers.

“Given the large numbers of people employed in the service sector, there will be wide reverberations if unemployment rises and wages and remittances fall,” the IMF’s director for the Middle East, Jihad Azour, said in statement.

In Egypt, tourist cancellations have reached 80%, while retail and hospitality sectors have also been hard-hit in countries like the United Arab Emirates where tourism is a pillar of the economy, according to the IMF.

The arrival of the global pandemic in Syria with one positive case, as well as in the Gaza Strip, has raised concerns the virus could run rampant in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. War-torn Libya and Yemen, which have yet to report any cases, are also a source of concern.

The worst outbreak in the Mideast is unfolding in Iran, where authorities reported another 122 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total number of fatalities to more than 1,900 amid more than 24,800 confirmed cases. The dead included the mother-in-law of the son of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state-run IRNA news agency said Monday.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour warned the public that numbers of the infected likely will rise further as Iran now has more ability to test and screen suspected cases. The ministry also has launched a website for the public to report if they suspect they have the virus, which will link them to medical staff who will come to them for tests.

So far, 41 million people have used the site, Jahanpour said. Iran is home to some 80 million people.

Lines have formed outside grocery stores, banks and gas stations across the Syrian capital, Damascus, as people braced for wider closures. The government has already closed restaurants, cafes and other businesses, and has halted public transportation.

Pakistani authorities meanwhile said they’d shut down train operations across the country from Wednesday until March 31 in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus as nationwide cases jumped to over 900.

In Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, dozens of people early Tuesday prayed to God for help against the virus. Online video showed people praying from their windows and balconies. Others showed some three dozen people marching in a side street and chanting: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger,” drawing criticism from people who said the demonstrators should have stayed at home.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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