AMMAN, JORDAN - Air raid sirens echoed across Jordan's capital on Saturday to mark the start of a three-day curfew, the latest mass lockdown in the Middle East aimed at containing the coronavirus, which has claimed another 123 lives in Iran, home to the region's worst outbreak.
The latest deaths bring Iran's overall toll to 1,556 amid 20,610 confirmed cases, according to figures released by the Health Ministry. Iran has faced widespread criticism for its lagging response to the outbreak, which has even infected and killed some senior officials.
In one of the strictest measures yet, Jordan has ordered all shops to close and all people to stay off the streets until at least Tuesday, when it plans to announce specific times for shopping. Anyone caught violating the curfew faces up to one year in prison.
Several countries in the Middle East have closed schools, universities and nonessential businesses. Many are threatening fines or jail time to those caught violating the decrees.
Egypt announced that all museums and archaeological sites, including the famed pyramids at Giza, would be closed from Monday until the end of March. Mostafa Waziri, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said authorities would sterilize all sites during the closure.
The council initially said the closure would begin Sunday before issuing a corrected statement.
Iran has been much slower to take action against the virus. It has urged people not to travel during the Persian New Year, a major national holiday, but many appear to be ignoring the guidance. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the number of cases has increased in many popular tourist destinations.
Iran has not ordered businesses to close, though many have done so on their own. Authorities only began closing popular religious pilgrimage sites earlier this week, long after the first virus cases were detected. There are concerns the country's healthcare infrastructure, weakened by severe U.S. sanctions, could be overwhelmed.
Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms from the coronavirus and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
More than 275,000 people have been infected worldwide. The virus has killed more than 11,000 people, while more than 88,000 have recovered.
Saturday is Mother's Day in the Middle East, and many took to social media to lament the fact that they would not be able to visit family members.
Iraq, which has reported 193 cases and 14 deaths, has struggled to maintain a weeklong curfew in Baghdad as religious pilgrims have continued to try to visit a major Shiite Muslim shrine in the capital.
The tiny, energy-rich nation of Qatar is warning citizens and residents to honor home quarantine rules. The state-run Qatar News Agency said authorities “captured 10 people” who broke the rules. It said those who disobey the orders could face prosecution.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian security forces arrested 20 Muslim preachers for allegedly violating a ban on holding Friday prayers, the Voice of Palestine reported. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, has closed mosques and barred all group prayers.
Abdallah Kmail, the governor of Salfit, said a village in the northern West Bank was locked down after a man who returned from Pakistan and tested positive for the virus participated in prayers held in violation of the ban. The man was an adherent of Salafism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, Kmail told the Voice of Palestine.
The governor said 250 people from the village of Qarawa Bani Hassan will be tested Saturday.
The Palestinian Authority has reported 52 confirmed cases, including 17 who recovered. Jordan has reported 85 infections, including one who recovered. Qatar has reported 460 cases, including 10 who recovered.
Even the authorities in eastern Libya, who have yet to report any cases, suspended all public transportation and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. The government there is allied with Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control much of the war-torn country.
In Egypt, which has reported 285 cases and eight deaths, there are growing calls for a more general lockdown.
Health Minister Hala Zayed urged the public to stay at home and practice social distancing after large crowds gathered for Friday prayers in different parts of the country.
Such gatherings “are very serious,” she said in televised remarks late Friday. “People should do their part. It's not only their lives, but also the life of the community and the state itself.”
Religious authorities have already restricted Friday prayers — which in normal circumstances can last an hour or more — to 15 minutes or less. They have also urged people to avoid mosques. On Saturday, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, suspended prayers and all congregations at the famed Cairo mosque for two weeks.
The Coptic Orthodox Church on Saturday announced the closure of all churches and cancelled all services and wedding parties. It said funeral possessions would be limited to the family of the deceased. The Catholic Church also cancelled all services in Egypt.
Coptic Christians make up around 10% of the population in Muslim-majority Egypt, which has smaller communities from other Christian denominations.
Lawmaker Mohammed Fouad called on the government to impose a curfew.
Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with more than 100 million people. Cairo, the capital, is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with more than 20 million residents.