The Middle East at war with coronavirus: Top stories from 18 April

The Middle East at war with coronavirus: Top stories from 18 April
In today's roundup: Iran allows some shuttered Tehran businesses to reopen, Lebanon's Le Bristol hotel closes down and the 'Holy Fire' ceremony is held in empty Jerusalem church.
4 min read
18 April, 2020
Get your daily coronavirus updates here [TNA]
Here are five stories you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic and how it is affecting the Middle East on 18 April:

1. Tehran cautiously reopens as economic hardship trumps virus risks

Iran allowed some shuttered Tehran businesses to reopen on Saturday despite the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, as many faced a bitter choice between risking infection and economic ruin.

Top officials argue that Iran's sanctions-hit economy cannot afford to remain on lockdown and approved similar measures in other provinces last week.

There was a "significant" uptick in highway use on Saturday, according to Tehran's traffic police chief, who told state TV that some anti-congestion measures had been lifted to discourage use of public transportation. Read more here

2. Landmark Lebanon hotel closes

A five-star hotel in Beirut that once hosted royalty and survived the civil war has been forced to close over Lebanon's economic crisis and coronavirus lockdown, its manager said on Saturday.

Click to enlarge

Lebanon is grappling with its worst financial crunch since the 1975-1990 civil war, now compounded by a nationwide lockdown since March 15 to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The crisis has pushed the owners of Le Bristol to close down the landmark hotel after almost seven decades in business, its general manager Joseph Coubat said.

"It's because of the economic situation which has become unbearable," he said.

"Now with the coronavirus, and with the financial problems we are going through in the country, the level of occupancy has fallen very low," he said, adding it was less than 10 percent.

He said the owners had decided to shut the hotel "while waiting for better days", but that for the moment the closure was definitive. Read more here. 

3. 'Holy Fire' ceremony held in empty Jerusalem church

A small group of Christian clerics celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem Saturday as the coronavirus pandemic prevented worshippers from taking part in the ancient ritual. 

They entered the Edicule, a chamber built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead after being crucified. They emerged with candles lit by a fire that the faithful view as a divine message. The source of the flame is a closely guarded secret. 

The clergymen, from different Orthodox denominations, then circled around inside the empty church, chanting prayers that echoed off the walls. 

In previous years, the church would be packed with pilgrims, each holding candles and passing the light around until it illuminated the centuries-old walls.

The ceremony, along with other events in the Holy Week leading up to Easter, was scaled back in line with a ban on public gatherings. Read more here.

4. Israel seals off two Palestinian towns

Israeli authorities sealed off the Arab towns of Deir al-Asad and al-Baneh in the northern Galilee region on Saturday morning for a week of tight restrictions, after "drive thru" testing facilities revealed a number of coronavirus cases in the area.

Confirmed cases of the virus in Deir al-Asad has increased by 589 percent in three days, according to a statement of the Ministry of Health on Saturday.

The nearby Jewish-majority town of Karmiel also implemented restrictions on its boundaries.

Karmiel had on Monday installed a mobile "drive thru" testing centre, which is thought to have revealed a number of confirmed infections among residents of the neighbouring Arab towns. Read more here.

5. Dubai extends 24-hour coronavirus curfew by one week

Dubai, the United Arab Emirates' business hub, has extended by one week a 24-hour curfew imposed as part of a sterilisation drive to control the spread of the new coronavirus, the government's media office said in a Twitter post late on Friday.

The UAE has imposed a nationwide nightly curfew since March 26 for the disinfection campaign, but Dubai on April 4 expanded it within the emirate to a 24-hour lockdown for two weeks.

The UAE on Thursday reported 460 new cases and two more deaths from the virus, taking its tally to 5,825 with 35 deaths. It does not give a breakdown for each of the seven emirates.

It has the second-highest infection count after its much larger neighbour Saudi Arabia among the six Gulf Arab states, where the total infection count has surpassed 22,000 with more than 140 deaths. Read more here.

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