Palestinian officials have announced the first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Deputy Health Minister Youssef Abulreesh said late on Saturday the two Palestinian patients had returned from Pakistan via Gaza’s Rafah border with neighbouring Egypt on Thursday.
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The pair exhibited symptoms of the illness, which include a dry cough and high fever, Abulreesh told a news conference.
He added that the two were placed in quarantine upon arrival and are now in a field hospital in the border town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Abulreesh urged Gaza’s nearly two million residents to take precautionary measures and to practise social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the potential spread of the virus.
Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus, at the main market in Gaza City [Adel Hana/The Associated Press]
Authorities in Gaza, which is run by the Hamas group, have decided to shut down the enclave’s restaurants, cafes and reception halls. Friday prayers at mosques have also been suspended until further notice.
Meanwhile, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli military unit that is responsible for civilian matters in the occupied territories, announced that effective on Sunday, all crossings into Israel from Gaza and the occupied West Bank have been closed.
“Merchants, workers and other permit holders will not be permitted to enter from the crossings until further notice,” COGAT said on its Twitter page, adding that some exceptions may apply to nurses and health workers, as well as exceptional medical cases.
Palestinians say permits to cross are hard to obtain, even for those with a medical or humanitarian reason, as each application is accompanied by a long logistical process, usually under the pretext of security clearance.
‘We are very afraid’
On March 15, authorities in Gaza introduced measures to place incoming residents in quarantine centres.
To date, there are 20 designated facilities in Gaza’s south, including schools, hotels and medical facilities, housing more than 1,200 people, according to a report released on Saturday by the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry.
The quarantine centres are located in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and the southern city of Khan Younis. According to the report, at least 2,000 other returnees have been self-isolating in their homes, prior to when the mandatory quarantine procedures were implemented last week.
Um Mohammed Khalil is among those who are being quarantined in Rafah.
After returning from a short visit to Egypt last week, the 49-year-old was among 50 other people who were bussed to a school with “poor hygiene standards”, where single rooms are shared by seven people.
The news of the first two positive cases sparked fear and anxiety among those quarantined in the school, Khalil told Al Jazeera.
“We were afraid that among us would be infected people, especially as we have been calling for an improvement in the quarantine conditions,” she said.
“Our families have been in contact with us since this morning, and they are also seriously concerned. Gaza has endured many wars and crises, but how can it tolerate this pandemic?” she said. “We are very afraid”.
Gaza under siege
Gaza’s healthcare system is in shambles and its war-battered residents are especially vulnerable as they have lived under an Israeli-Egyptian siege for nearly 13 years.
The air, land and sea blockade has restricted the entry of essential resources such as healthcare equipment, medication and building materials, among others.
Since 2007, Gaza has seen three Israeli assaults that have resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and a power plant.
Gaza’s homes, offices and hospitals receive an average of four to six hours of electricity per day.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza’s healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak, given that the strip’s hospitals are overstretched and under-sourced.
Ayman al-Halabi, a doctor at the laboratories run by Gaza’s health ministry, is among a team of physicians responsible for testing incoming samples.
“The routine from two weeks ago was to gather samples from returnees at the Rafah border, which undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test – the test of choice utilised to diagnose COVID-19,” al-Halabi told Al Jazeera.
Hundreds of other samples of people who may have come into contact with the two first patients are now being tested, al-Halabi said.
Citing Gaza’s limited resources, al-Halabi said: “Facing this pandemic is going to be extremely challenging.
“If the biggest and most powerful countries are struggling, how is Gaza supposed to cope?”
‘End of the world’
Globally, more than 300,000 people have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. More than 13,000 people have died from the virus, while some 92,000 have recovered.
With the looming threat of an outbreak, many say the virus might be the last straw for Gaza’s weary residents.
Amira al-Dremly knew that it would only be a matter of time until the virus made its way to Gaza.
But hearing the news that two had tested positive on Saturday still felt like “the end of the world”, al-Dremly told Al Jazeera.
“The biggest fear is that the available resources in Gaza are not enough to act as a temporary solution [to the spread of the virus],” the 34-year-old said.
“I’m very afraid for my children. I am taking measures to educate them about sterilisation and have prevented them from leaving the house,” the mother of four said.
“But the psychological effects are difficult, my family and everyone around me are very confused by this news,” she added.
Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, is home to some of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps, and al-Dremly noted that social distancing is something that is “easier said than done”.
US military confirms Afghan crash but disputes plane was downed
The US military has confirmed one of its planes crashed in eastern Afghan province of Ghazni on Monday, but disputed claim that the aircraft had been brought down by enemy fire. “While the cause of crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” US military spokesman Colonel Sonny…
The US military has confirmed one of its planes crashed in eastern Afghan province of Ghazni on Monday, but disputed claim that the aircraft had been brought down by enemy fire.
“While the cause of crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” US military spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett said in a statement.
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Leggett gave no information on casualties in the crash.
Pictures and a video on social media purportedly from the crash site showed what could be the remains of a Bombardier E-11A aircraft. Reuters could not verify the images.
Senior Afghan officials told Reuters the authorities had rushed local personnel to locate and identify the wreckage in a mountainous area partly controlled by the Taliban.
The US military has confirmed one of its planes crashed in eastern Afghan province of Ghazni on Monday [Saifullah Maftoon/AP Photo]
Taliban claim plane brought down
The Taliban, which currently control or hold sway over around half the country, claimed the plane was brought down.
“The plane, which was on an intelligence mission, was brought down in Sado Khel area of Deh Yak district of Ghazni province,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement.
Mujahid did not say how the fighters had brought the plane down, which is used to provide communication capabilities in remote locations.
He said the crew on board included high-ranking officers from the United States, but a senior US defence official denied that senior American officers were involved.
The armed group, which has been waging a war against US-led forces since 2001, often exaggerates enemy casualty figures.
Local Afghan officials had said earlier on Monday that a passenger plane from the state-owned Ariana Airlines had crashed in the Taliban-held area. However, Ariana Airlines told denied initial reports that it was the owner of the plane.
“It does not belong to Ariana because the two flights managed by Ariana today, from Herat to Kabul and Herat to Delhi, are safe,” its acting CEO Mirwais Mirzakwal told Reuters.
Two officials from Ghazni province said the crashed aircraft appeared to belong to a foreign company.
“There is no exact information on casualties and the name of the airline,” Ghazni Provincial Governor Wahidullah Kaleemzai told private broadcaster Tolo News earlier on Monday.
The crash comes as the Taliban and US have been in talks on ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Taliban has been waging an armed rebellion since it was toppled from power following the September 2001 attacks in the US.
Negotiations between the two sides began last year in Doha but have been interrupted at least twice after Taliban attacks on US military personnel in September and December.
Last week, another round of talks kicked off with US Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad meeting repeatedly with the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The Taliban claimed the plane was brought down [Saifullah Maftoon/AP Photo]
Iran confirms two missiles fired at Ukraine airliner
Iran has confirmed two missiles were fired at a Ukrainian airliner mistakenly brought down earlier this month amid heightened tensions with the United States. The country’s civil aviation authority said it has yet to receive a positive response after requesting technical assistance from France and the US to decode black boxes from the plane that crashed…
Iran has confirmed two missiles were fired at a Ukrainian airliner mistakenly brought down earlier this month amid heightened tensions with the United States.
The country’s civil aviation authority said it has yet to receive a positive response after requesting technical assistance from France and the US to decode black boxes from the plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on January 8, killing all 176 people on board.
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“Investigators … discovered that two Tor-M1 missiles… were fired at the aircraft,” Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said in a preliminary report posted on its website late on Monday.
However, the report said “the impact of these missiles on the accident and the analysis of this action is under investigation”.
The statement confirms a report in The New York Times which included video footage appearing to show two projectiles being fired at the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines jet.
The Tor-M1 is a short-range surface-to-air missile developed by the former Soviet Union that is designed to target aircraft or cruise missiles.
Iran had for days denied Western claims based on US intelligence reports that the aircraft had been shot down, before admitting to the “disastrous mistake” on January 11.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) aerospace commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh accepted full responsibility but said the missile operator who opened fire had been acting independently.
The downing triggered days of student-led protests mainly in the Iranian capital.
Supreme leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei said on Friday that the demonstrations were unrepresentative of the Iranian people and accused the country’s enemies of exploiting the air disaster for propaganda purposes.
In its report, the Civil Aviation Organization said it was “impossible” for it to read the flight data and cockpit voice recorders – commonly known as black boxes – because they were so advanced.
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But it suggested Iran wants to keep them for now.
“If devices are provided, the information (on the black boxes) can be restored and retrieved in a short period of time,” it said.
The aviation body said it had asked its French and US counterparts, the BEA and NTSB respectively, to provide a list of the equipment required to read the black boxes.
It said it had also sought the transfer of the equipment, but added that neither the BEA nor NTSB had “so far responded positively”.
The organisation said it had acquired the list nonetheless, without saying how, and hinted it would use it to buy the equipment itself.
The report said that based on passports used to board Flight PS752, there were 146 Iranians, 11 Ukrainians including nine crew members, 10 Afghans and four Swedes on the ill-fated airliner.
Canada, which says 57 of its nationals were on the plane, has repeatedly asked Iran to hand the black boxes over to Ukraine or France for expert analysis.
The aircraft was downed when Iran’s air defences had been on high alert hours after its armed forces fired more than 20 ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq.
That was carried out in reprisal for a January 3 US drone strike that killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qassem Soleimani, near Baghdad airport.
US President Donald Trump had threatened to hit back if Iran struck US citizens or assets in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing, but refrained after the missiles caused no casualties.
It was the second time in little more than six months that the two countries were on the brink of war.
In June 2019, Trump had approved a strike on Iran in response to the downing of a US drone in the Gulf, before calling it off at the last minute.
Longstanding US-Iran tensions have soared since May 2018 when Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal that offered Tehran sanctions relief in return for curbs to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Washington says it seeks to rein in Tehran’s ballistic missile programme as well as its “destabilising behaviour” in the region.
It has since slapped punishing sanctions on Iran, which denies it wants to acquire nuclear weapons and has hit back by progressively rolling back commitments to the unravelling nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Tehran and world powers.
World mourns Iran plane crash victims (2:23)
China confirms fourth coronavirus death, as WHO prepares to meet
The senior health official investigating an outbreak of pneumonia in China stemming from a new coronavirus has said the disease can spread from person to person but can be halted with increased vigilance, as authorities confirmed the fourth death from the infection. Zhong Nanshan, the head of the National Health Commission, said there was no danger of a…
The senior health official investigating an outbreak of pneumonia in China stemming from a new coronavirus has said the disease can spread from person to person but can be halted with increased vigilance, as authorities confirmed the fourth death from the infection.
Zhong Nanshan, the head of the National Health Commission, said there was no danger of a repeat of 2002’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that killed nearly 800 people across the world, as long as precautions were taken.
“It took only two weeks to identify the novel coronavirus,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Zhong as saying late on Monday.
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Earlier, Zhong acknowledged patients may have contracted the new virus without having visited the central city of Wuhan where the infection is thought to have originated in a seafood market.
“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
A fourth person died on January 19, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said on Tuesday. The 89-year-old man, who had underlying health diseases including coronary heart disease, developed symptoms on January 13 and was admitted to hospital five days later, it added.
The outbreak has spread from the central city of Wuhan to cities including Beijing and Shanghai, with more than 200 cases reported so far. Four cases have been confirmed outside China – in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.
Australia on Tuesday said it would screen passengers on flights from Wuhan amid rising concerns that the virus will spread globally as Chinese travellers take flights abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday that starts this week.
A man showing symptoms of the new disease who had travelled to Wuhan was in isolation as health officials awaited test results, public broadcaster ABC reported on Tuesday
“The outbreak could perhaps not have come at a worse time,” said Al Jazeera’s Katrina Wu, who is in Beijing.
“This is the peak travel season in China. The government has always boasted that during the Lunar New Year you see two to three billion trips being made across the country and Wuhan is not a small city; it’s about 11 million people who will be travelling not only in China, but overseas. It’s a major transport hub.”
Authorities around the globe, including in the United States and many Asian countries, have stepped up the screening of travellers from Wuhan.
China says it has stepped up surveillance and quarantine measures as it tries to stop a new coronavirus from spreading further [Stringer/Reuters]
Zhong, the head of the National Health Commission, said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members who had visited Wuhan.
He added that 14 medical staff helping with coronavirus patients had also been infected.
The Wuhan virus causes a type of pneumonia and belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as SARS. Symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and pose complications for screening efforts.
SARS originated in southern China in 2002 and spread to 26 countries across the world over the following months, infecting more than 8,000 people before it was brought under control, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO, which is due to hold an emergency meeting on the outbreak on Wednesday, has said an animal source appeared most likely to be the primary origin of the Wuhan outbreak
South Korea on Monday reported its first case of the new coronavirus – a 35-year-old woman who had flown in from Wuhan.
Thailand and Japan previously confirmed a total of three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.
The outbreak is spreading as China gears up for the Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of thousands of people visit family or take holidays [File: Aly Song/Reuters]
WHO has said the jump in new cases was the result of “increased searching and testing for [the virus] among people sick with respiratory illness”.
Wuhan authorities said they have installed infrared thermometers at airports, and railway and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fever were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions.
Chinese state media moved to calm the mood as discussion swelled on social media about the coronavirus spreading to other Chinese cities.
Weighing in on the matter for the first time, China’s President Xi Jinping said on Monday that safeguarding people’s lives should be given “top priority” and that the spread of the epidemic “should be resolutely contained”, according to CCTV.
Xi said it was necessary to “release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation”, and ensure people have a “stable and peaceful Spring Festival”, the broadcaster said.
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