CAIRO, EGYPT - After weeks of reporting that the country was free of the coronavirus, the Syrian government is saying that it has experienced its first case. Other unconfirmed reports, however, put the figure much higher.
Responding to world efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus, the Syrian government has decided to react more forcefully, disinfecting public squares, buildings and Damascus' iconic Hamidiya closed market.
Health Minister Nizar Yazigi told state TV late Sunday that Syria has discovered its first confirmed case of the virus in a 20 year-old woman arriving from abroad.
He said that she was tested because she was arriving from a place that has suffered an outbreak of the virus and showed signs of a fever even though she was not sick. He said she is being quarantined for 14 days and will be monitored every four days.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Arab media last week that the Syrian government is using a number of hospitals to quarantine suspected coronavirus cases among Iranian and Iraqi militia fighters, in both Damascus and Deir ez Zor. VOA could not independently confirm the claim.
Reacting to the growing health crisis, Syria's council of ministers voted Sunday to stop all intercity public transport and close shopping malls and public markets, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets.
Hussein Makhlouf, minister of local government, told journalists that the government was taking strong measures to stop the spread of the virus.
He said that the council of ministers has ordered the halt of all inter-city public transportation as of 8 p.m. Monday along with the closure of non-essential businesses and social centers.
Prime Minister Imad Khamis indicated that the government had put in place a six-month plan to deal with the virus, appointing public health teams to combat its spread in each province of the country.
Syria also closed all its land border crossings with Lebanon as of midday Monday, except for commercial vehicles and ordered that drivers be tested for the virus.
The government suspended the printing of all newspapers and magazines to prevent the potential spread of the virus on paper. The Syrian information ministry insisted, however, that all publications would continue to appear online.
World Health Organization envoy Na'ama Sa'id Abed told Reuters there was a serious risk of the virus spreading to displaced Syrians living in camps and on the fringes of cities.
Some residents of Damascus told Syrian media that they were "not worried about the spread of the virus," while several others joked that they were still "taking their precautions" by keeping a face mask with them "if needed."