TEHRAN - Iran reported its single biggest jump in deaths from the new coronavirus on Wednesday as another 147 people died, raising the country's overall death toll to 1,135.
The nearly 15% spike in deaths — amid a total of 17,361 confirmed cases in Iran — marks the biggest 24-hour rise in fatalities since officials first acknowledged cases of the virus in Iran in mid-February.
Even as the number of cases continues to grow each day, food markets were still packed with shoppers Wednesday and highways were crowded with traffic as families traveled between cities ahead of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on Friday.
Iran's deputy health minister, Alireza Raisi, urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places. In a statement on state TV, Raisi told Iranians the coming period represented two “golden weeks" to try curb the virus from spreading further.
He criticized people for not adhering to the warnings to stay home, saying the virus is very serious. "This is not a good situation at all," he said.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government's response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.
In a speech to his Cabinet, Rouhani said the government was "straightforward" with the nation, saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it on Feb. 19.
"We spoke to people in an honest way. We had no delay," he added.
For weeks, government officials implored clerics to shut down crowded holy shrines to stymie the spread of the virus. The government finally closed the shrines this week.
"It was difficult of course to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it," Rouhani said.
Iran also announced it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week. Other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have also cancelled Friday prayers in mosques.
The new coronavirus has infected more than 200,000 people around the world and killed more than 8,000. For most people, it 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. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
World Health Organization director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, Ahmed Al-Mandhari, told reporters via a virtual press conference that the many travel restrictions, imposed by various countries, are hurting efforts to combat the virus. They delay both the deployment of public health experts to countries that need support and the delivery of urgently needed medical supplies, he said.
In Israel, meanwhile, the Health Ministry said 90 more people had tested positive, bringing the country's overall number to 427, a day after authorities issued new guidelines that put Israelis in near-shutdown mode. Israel has ordered tens of thousands into home quarantine, turned hotels into hospitals and was setting up drive-thru testing centers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of catastrophic consequences if people don't follow safety instructions. "This is a huge crisis. We are only at the start of the campaign," he said in a televised address Tuesday evening.
Most controversially, the Israeli government has instructed the shadowy Shin Bet internal security service to start deploying the agency's phone surveillance technology to help curb the spread of the virus in Israel by tracking the moves of the infected.
In Iraq, a week-long curfew went into effect in Baghdad. Only pedestrians were allowed on the streets to buy necessary foodstuffs and medicine. Armed Iraqi police were seen patrolling the city and setting up roadblocks.
Still, some pilgrims in Iraq defied the curfew to observe the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Mousa al-Kazim. Thousands typically make the journey on foot to the revered imam's shrine in the Khadimiya area outside of Baghdad. Several men, women and children walked solemnly down Baghdad's Saadoun Street on Wednesday, determined to complete the journey to the shrine. Police stationed nearby did not intervene to stop them.
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the hub of Iraq's anti-government protest movement, issued a collective statement that they were suspending protest activities to help stop the spread of the virus. Iraq has had 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.
In Egypt, coffee shops and restaurants were shuttered on Wednesday. Plain-clothed security forces urged people to go home in Cairo, a city of over 20 million.
"I am financially ruined, how can I earn my living now," said Mohammed Gamal, a worker in a coffee shop that was shut down by authorities.
Egypt, which has reported nearly 200 cases and six deaths from the virus, has suspended flights, closed schools, is quarantining more than 300 families in a Nile Delta village. It also imposed a lockdown in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada and ordered all workers at hotels and tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh, Luxor and Aswan to self quarantine for 14 days.
A 12-hour evening curfew was also announced in Libya's east, which is governed by the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces and commanded by Gen. Khalifa Hifter. They also announced the closure of the country's borders with neighboring Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria. No cases of the virus have been reported in Libya, where the health care system has been decimated by years of conflict.
As global stock markets remain volatile, the United Arab Emirates' Securities and Commodities Authority announced that local exchanges would only be able to fluctuate 5%, rather than 10%, before trading is suspended.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies may hold an extraordinary virtual meeting next week about advancing a coordinated response to the pandemic. Saudi Arabia, which currently leads the G20 presidency, said it is communicating with countries to convene the virtual meeting of leaders.
In Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who this week visited China along with the country's president Arif Alvi, said he is protectively quarantining himself on his physician's advice.