The official leading Iran's response to the new coronavirus acknowledged Sunday that the pandemic could overwhelm health facilities in his country, which is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East while under heavy US sanctions.
Iran's Health Ministry reported another 113 deaths, bringing the country's total death toll to 724, with nearly 14,000 confirmed cases. It was the biggest single-day jump in fatalities since the virus was first reported in the country.
Muslim authorities meanwhile announced that the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.
Similar measures have been taken at the nearby Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray. Outdoor prayers continue, but only 10 people at a time are permitted in enclosed areas, in keeping with measures taken by the Israeli government.
Iran's outbreak has caused growing alarm, with concerns about the government's transparency in reporting the extent of the epidemic and its ability to contain it.
“If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity,” Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the outbreak, was quoted as saying earlier by the state-run IRNA news agency.
Iran is believed to have around 110,000 hospital beds, including 30,000 in the capital, Tehran. Authorities have pledged to set up mobile clinics as needed.
Zali also acknowledged that “many” of those who have died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus were otherwise healthy, a rare admission by local authorities that the virus does not only prey on the sick and elderly.
Health Ministry figures show that while 55% of fatalities were in their 60s, some 15% were younger than 40.
For most people, the virus 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. Most people recover in a matter of weeks.
The virus has infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,800. More than 70,000 people worldwide have recovered after being infected.
In Iran, the virus has infected a number of senior officials, including Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials.
Senior Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri returned to work Sunday after testing negative, the presidency's website said. He was absent from official meetings last week, and the semi-official Fars news agency had reported that he had contracted the virus.
Authorities have nevertheless been slow to adopt measures taken by other hard-hit countries. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday ruled out a general quarantine and said the government was working to keep the borders open.
Dalia Samhouri, a senior regional official with the World Health Organization, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Middle East, were likely underreporting cases because of the nature of the virus, which can be spread by individuals who show no visible symptoms. Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.
“We can easily say that the current figures are an underestimation of the actual figures,” she said.
Iran has struggled to respond in part because of crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. says it has offered humanitarian aid but that Iran has rejected it.
Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping travel restrictions, cancelled public events and called on non-essential businesses to close for the coming weeks. Many have temporarily closed schools and universities.
In the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai, a global business and travel hub in the United Arab Emirates, authorities announced on Sunday that all movie theaters, arcades and gyms would be closed through the end of the month.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, also shut down its amusement parks and museums through the end of the month, including Louvre Abu Dhabi.
In Lebanon, police used loudspeakers to order people to evacuate the city's famous Mediterranean boardwalk. The small country, which has reported 99 cases and three deaths, has already closed all restaurants and nightclubs, halted flights from several countries and tightened border controls. President Michel Aoun urged people to stay home.
Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque is the latest in a series of religious sites where access has been halted or strictly limited. Saudi Arabia has suspended the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and could be forced to limit or cancel the much larger hajj later this year. On Sunday, it announced the temporary closure of all mosques and called off Friday prayers.
Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, said the closure of the mosque and other buildings on the compound, including the iconic golden Dome of the Rock, would continue indefinitely.
The religious site is also the holiest in Judaism because it was the location of the two Jewish temples in antiquity. Israel occupied and annexed east Jerusalem in the 1967 war in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, and the religious site has often been a flashpoint in the decades-long conflict.
Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed cases double in recent days, to around 200. On Saturday, the government said restaurants, malls, cinemas, gyms and daycare centers would close.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trial on serious corruption charges, which was supposed to begin this week, was postponed for two months due to restrictions on public gatherings. Netanyahu and those in “close proximity” to him have been tested for the virus, despite not showing any symptoms, his office said. The tests came back negative.
Palestinian officials said President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 85 years old and has age-related health issues, is no longer receiving any guests as a precaution, and is only meeting with a couple of very close aides. Most of his staff have been asked to work from home.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the measures with the media.
The Palestinian Authority has reported 38 coronavirus cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, nearly all connected to an outbreak in the town of Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born. Israel and the Palestinians have largely sealed the town off.