Coronavirus fears grip Middle East; 10,000 Iran medics infected

Iran grapples with deadliest outbreak in the region while concerns also grow over rise in cases in Gaza Strip and Yemen.

The coronavirus has infected more than 10,000 healthcare workers in hard-hit Iran, reports said, as health officials in war-ravaged Yemen and Gaza expressed mounting concern about the waves of new cases.

Iran’s semi-official news agencies on Thursday cited Deputy Health Minister Qassem Janbabaei, who did not elaborate. Reports earlier in the week put the number of infected healthcare workers at only 800. Iran says more than 100 of those workers have died.


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Iran is grappling with the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, with at least 7,249 fatalities among more than 129,000 confirmed cases.

Those figures include an additional 66 deaths announced on Thursday by Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour.

‘Tip of the iceberg’ in Yemen

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said the virus-related death toll at a medical centre it runs in southern Yemen attests to “a wider catastrophe” in the country, where a five-year civil war had already caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The facility in Aden admitted 173 patients between April 30 and May 17, at least 68 of whom have died, the group said in a statement.

The United Nations-recognised Yemeni government in the south has confirmed 193 cases, with 33 fatalities.

“What we are seeing in our treatment centre is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the number of people infected and dying in the city,” said Caroline Seguin, MSF’s operations manager for Yemen.

“People are coming to us too late to save, and we know that many more people are not coming at all: they are just dying at home.”

The government tally of cases does not include confirmed cases in the country’s north, which is under the control of the Houthi rebels, who are believed to be concealing the magnitude of the outbreak.

So far, they have reported four cases, including one death of a Somali migrant.

On Tuesday, a 35-year-old World Food Programme staffer died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, in the Houthi-controlled province of Saada, the group said.

The Iran-backed Houthis captured much of northern Yemen, including capital Sanaa in 2014, forcing the government to flee to the south.

The following year, a Saudi-led coalition went to war against the rebels.

The increase in suspected coronavirus cases in Yemen is sounding alarms throughout the global health community, which fears the virus will spread like wildfire through some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The World Health Organization says its models suggest that, under some scenarios, half of Yemen’s population of 30 million could be infected with the virus and more than 40,000 could die.

Yemen’s health facilities are severely strained and 18 percent of the country’s 333 districts have no doctors. Water and sanitation systems have collapsed. Many families can barely afford one meal a day.

“The high level of mortality we are seeing among our patients is equivalent to those of intensive care units in Europe, but the people we see dying are much younger than in France or Italy: mostly men between 40 and 60 years old,” Seguin said.

The war in Yemen has killed more than 100,000 people and left millions suffering from food and medical shortages.

Concerns in Gaza Strip

Another area of concern is the Gaza Strip, where the Health Ministry has reported 35 new cases in the last three days, bringing the total number to 55.

All the new cases have been detected among returnees from abroad who are in mandatory quarantine in facilities at the border.

Yousef Abu el-Rish, a senior Health Ministry official, on Thursday said it is investigating whether the virus has spread beyond the quarantine facilities, where some 2,000 people are housed.

Gaza’s healthcare system has been severely degraded by a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after ruling group Hamas seized power there in 2007.

The territory only has around 60 ventilators for a population of two million.

Egypt controls information

In Egypt, where those publicly questioning the official coronavirus toll have been expelled or thrown in prison, a government official acknowledged for the first time that the states outbreak is likely much larger than reported.

Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the minister of higher education, said on Thursday at a conference – attended by the president and other top officials – that disease models suggest the state’s current count of 15,003 infections is an estimated “five times lower than” the projected numbers of 71,145 “or more.”

“This is a hypothetical model that we say can be a reality,” he said, noting that across the world, officials cannot know precisely how many people are infected.

Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the media has been largely muzzled and authorities have seized on the pandemic to tighten controls.

Security services expelled a reporter from The Guardian newspaper over an article citing infectious disease specialists who estimated Egypt had some 19,000 cases in March.

In a separate development, the International Monetary Fund approved nearly $400m in emergency financial assistance to Jordan, which has largely succeeded in containing its outbreak by imposing wide-ranging quarantine measures.

Jordan, a close Western ally, has reported 672 cases, including nine fatalities.

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