CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt will impose a two-week nightly curfew in the Arab world’s most populous country in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, its prime minister announced Tuesday, as the International Monetary Fund warned that a shortage of medical supplies could affect the Mideast’s poorest nations.
There are over 31,000 confirmed cases of the virus across the Mideast, the vast majority in the hard-hit nation of Iran. While most recover from the virus and the COVID-19 illness that it causes, bottoming crude oil prices have put additional strain on even the region’s wealthiest countries. That in turn could affect their ability to spend on needed supplies as the virus challenges medical systems worldwide.
Already, countries have reacted by either urging or ordering hundreds of millions of people to stay home. Egypt, home to over 100 million alone, became the latest on Tuesday.
Egyptian Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly told a news conference that the 11-hour nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. would go into effect Wednesday, during which various forms of transportation will also come to a halt.
Egypt has 366 confirmed cases and 21 fatalities, including two senior military officers.
Madbouly announced the continued closure of airports, schools and universities until April 12. He said shops and malls will close Fridays and Saturdays — Egypt’s weekend — and only open from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. the rest of the week. Groceries, bakeries and pharmacies would be excluded from the closure order.
“We aim to protect our families and citizens across Egypt,” Madbouly said. “There are more restrictive measures that we will take according to the developments.” He did not elaborate.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi pleaded with his people to work with the government and respond positively to the measures taken to stem the spread of the virus.
“I am confident that the great Egyptian people will respond positively to these measures, in order to protect the security and safety of our beloved Egypt,” he tweeted, hours before the curfew announcement.
He warned that authorities would confront any attempts to violate the announced measures with “the utmost firmness and decisiveness, within the framework of the law.”
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, dozens of people took to their balconies early Tuesday to pray for help against the virus, online videos showed. Other footage showed some three dozen people marching in a side street and chanting: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger,” drawing online criticism saying demonstrators should have stayed indoors.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said it had arrested “a number” of organizers of the Alexandria gathering, but did not elaborate on how many.
Sissi’s government has banned large gatherings, closed all its museums and archaeological sites including the famed Giza Pyramids and locked down the ancient city of Luxor along with the resorts of Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh. Religious authorities have ordered a two-week closure of churches and mosques.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas-run religious authorities announced all mosques will be shut down for two weeks starting Wednesday. Schools had already closed.
After detecting two coronavirus cases earlier this week among returnees already in quarantine, Hamas imposed further precautions that included canceling Friday prayers, closing wedding halls and banning weekly street markets.
An Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, in place since the terrorist group took power in 2007, seems to have slowed the arrival of the new virus to the densely populated Palestinian enclave. The two cases had contracted the virus in Pakistan, returning home last week before Egypt closed its border with Gaza.
IMF urges austerity
The IMF, which traditionally has urged governments to implement greater austerity measures, was urging Mideast governments to offer temporary tax relief and cash transfers. It warned a lack of medical supplies could hurt Iraq, Sudan and Yemen if it leads to a surge in prices.
“Given the large numbers of people employed in the service sector, there will be wide reverberations if unemployment rises and wages and remittances fall,” the IMF’s director for the Middle East, Jihad Azour, said in statement.
In Egypt, tourist cancellations have reached 80%. Retail and hospitality sectors have been hard-hit in countries like the United Arab Emirates, where tourism is a pillar of the economy, according to the IMF.
The arrival of the pandemic in Syria with one confirmed case, as well as the impoverished Gaza Strip, has raised concerns the virus could run rampant in some of the most vulnerable areas in the Middle East. War-torn Libya and Yemen, which have yet to report any cases, are also a source of concern.
The worst outbreak in the Mideast is unfolding in Iran, where authorities reported another 122 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total number of fatalities to more than 1,900 amid more than 24,800 confirmed cases. The dead included the mother-in-law of the son of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state-run IRNA news agency said Monday.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour warned the public that infections will likely rise further, as Iran now has more ability to test and screen suspected cases. The ministry has launched a website for the public to report if they suspect they have the virus, which will link them to medical staff to come and test them.
So far, 41 million people have used the site, Jahanpour said. Iran is home to some 80 million people.
Lines have formed outside grocery stores, banks and gas stations across the Syrian capital, Damascus, as people braced for wider closures. The government has already closed restaurants, cafes and other businesses, and has halted public transportation.
The sultanate of Oman meanwhile announced it would halt all passenger flights beginning Sunday, although cargo flights would continue.
Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that its virus cases jumped from 562 to 767, and included its first death.