Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani has contracted the coronavirus, the highest-ranking official among several senior government figures to catch the disease, as several top Israeli officials entered quarantine after Israel's health minister tested positive on Thursday.
The parliament in Iran, the regional epicenter of the coronavirus, announced Larijani’s illness on its website, saying he was receiving treatment in quarantine.
Meanwhile Israel was rattled by the diagnosis of its health minister, who had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Middle East has over 82,000 confirmed cases of the virus and over 3,600 deaths, most of them in Iran. Iran’s Health Ministry said Thursday that the new coronavirus killed another 124 people, pushing the country's death toll to 3,160.
In a rare acknowledgment of the severity of the outbreak by a senior Iranian official, President Hassan Rohani said the new coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, state TV reported Thursday.
“We always have to follow the health protocols provided by the health ministry," Rohani added.
In Lebanon, the Philippines ambassador, Bernardita Catalla, died of complications from the coronavirus Thursday, the Philippines said. Lebanon has recorded 494 cases, including 16 deaths.
Israel said Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife, who also contracted the virus, are in isolation, feel well and are being treated.
Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu's office said he returned to self-quarantine because of contact with Litzman. Netanyahu, who has tested negative, had previously been in isolation after a top aide tested positive for the virus.
Hebrew language media reported that the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency and the National Security Council were asked to self-quarantine because of their interactions with Litzman.
Israel has gone into near-lockdown to try to contain the outbreak. It has reported over 6,200 confirmed cases and 29 deaths of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Israel's large, insular ultra-Orthodox community, of which Litzman is a member, has been particularly hard hit. In the early phases of the outbreak, some rabbis had pushed back or ignored government-mandated movement restrictions, but resistance appears to have diminished.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia that can be fatal.
In Syria, the government extended the closures of mosques until April 16, nearly a week before the start of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims spend more time in prayers and worship. It also extended indefinitely a ban on visits to prison and detention facilities, citing concerns over the spread of the virus, and expanded curfew times over weekend days.
Rights groups have called on Mideast governments to release thousands of political detainees held in crammed and unhygienic jails. In government-controlled Syria, 10 cases of infection and two deaths were reported, amid concerns the virus may be more widespread.
The World Health Organization said it was increasing preparedness in the rebel-controlled, northwestern region of Syria that is home to nearly 4 million people, most of them displaced by the war and repeated government offensives. Only half of the health facilities are functioning in rebel-held territory, where displaced camps are crowded and the virus' transmission would be fast once it reaches the area.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is expected to wipe out $23 billion in passenger revenue from airlines across the Middle East and Africa this year, according to an assessment Thursday by the aviation industry’s largest trade association.
The International Air Transport Association said Mideast airlines will see a $19 billion drop in revenue this year, compared to 2019. Airlines in Africa, which include EgyptAir, are expected to see a $4 billion drop. Hundreds of thousands of job in the aviation sector are also at risk across both regions.
Saudi Arabia’s revenue loss could exceed $5.6 billion this year, as all pilgrimage flights are currently halted in addition to commercial flights to and from the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates, home to world’s busiest airport for international travel in Dubai, is projected to lose $5.4 billion in revenue.
Egypt and Qatar could also see more than $1 billion each in revenue loss, while the aviation sector in South Africa is expected to lose $2.3 billion in potential revenue.
IATA said projections are based on assumptions that travel restrictions will continue through the second quarter of 2020. Even if travel recovers partially in the second half of the year, it will be slow and impacted by an overall slump in the global economy and weakened passenger demand.