Global virus death toll tops 12,000 — AFP tally
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Nearly 600K watch virtual protest against PM, Likud’s shuttering of Knesset

Former Shin Bet, Mossad heads and ex- Supreme Court deputy chief address Facebook event, calling on Gantz to refrain from joining coalition led by Likud leader under indictment

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Yuval Diskin address online protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 21, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)
Yuval Diskin address online protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 21, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Saturday’s events as they unfolded.

Health Ministry urges Israelis to stay inside ‘despite the warm weather’

As large numbers of Israelis are seen strolling through parks and boardwalks in Tel Aviv and throughout the country taking advantage of the warm weekend weather, the Health Ministry issues a statement urging the public to remain at home.

“The nice weather is not a reason to leave the house,” the ministry says.

“Follow the Health Ministry’s guidelines, otherwise we will find ourselves with a significant outbreak,” says the ministry’s director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov.

The guidelines allow Israelis to leave the home for unorganized sport activity of up to two people as well as a short 10 minute walk, which many people appear to be taking advantage of.

Police seen dispersing gatherings at parks and boardwalks in Tel Aviv

Police are seen driving through parks, plazas and boardwalks in Tel Aviv, telling Israelis to return home.

Health Ministry guidelines allow civilians to take a 10 minute stroll near their homes or leave the house for unorganized exercise of up to two people.

US athletics federation calls for Olympic postponement

US athletics’ governing body has joined calls for the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed, urging United States Olympic chiefs to push for the games to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), USA Track and Field chief Max Siegel said forging ahead with Olympic preparations “would not be in the best interest of our athletes.”

The USATF call for a postponement echoes a similar request by USA Swimming on Friday after the USOPC said it was too soon to postpone the July 24-August 9 Games.

Siegel urges the USOPC to support a postponement, citing the health and safety of athletes as well as disruption to training and competition schedules caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness is among our highest priorities,” Siegel says.

“The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this difficult situation has, and continues to take, on our athletes and their Olympic Games preparations.

“For those reasons, USATF is respectfully requesting that the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) advocate to the IOC for the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.”

Siegel acknowledges that there “were no perfect answers” to what was a “very complex and difficult decision.”

“But this position at least provides our athletes with the comfort of knowing that they will have adequate time to properly prepare themselves physically, mentally and emotionally to be able to participate in a safe and successful Olympic Games, and that they can shift their focus toward taking care of themselves and their families,” he says.

“We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes.”

—  AFP

Hungary proposes sweeping new virus emergency powers

Hungary’s government has submitted a bill to parliament that would enable sweeping rule-by-decree powers to tackle the coronavirus under an extended state of emergency, as well as introducing jail terms for spreading “fake news.”

According to the draft posted on the parliament website late on Friday, the bill would enable the government to indefinitely extend the state of emergency and its associated powers of rule by decree, removing the current requirement for MPs to approve any extension.

Hungary ordered a state of emergency on March 11 as part of protective measures aimed at stemming the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which have included the closure of borders to non-national passenger traffic.

According to the draft bill, during the period of the state of emergency the government could “by decree suspend the use of certain laws, diverge from statutory provisions, and introduce other extraordinary measures, in the interest of guaranteeing the stabilization of the lives, health, personal and material security of citizens, as well as the economy.”

Critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government worry that this clause might allow it to arbitrarily regulate by force of decree.

Another clause in the draft raises the possibility of a “forced parliamentary break,” prompting concerns that the government could suspend the current assembly session.

The draft also proposes criminal code changes to levy stiff jail terms for violating quarantine orders or for spreading what Budapest has called “fake news” about its measures and the coronavirus.

The penalties include eight-year sentences for causing death by breaching disease control measures, and five years for “anyone publicly disseminating a false fact or falsifying an actual fact (…) preventing or frustrating the effectiveness” of anti-virus orders.

The bill could come before parliament next week where it will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Hungary has so far reported 103 cases of the infection, and four virus-related deaths.

— AFP

Drive-through COVID-19 testing station in Haifa to open tonight

The Magen David Adom emergency service says its second drive-through coronavirus testing facility will open to the public later this evening in the northern city of Haifa.

The facility opens a day after the first such complex began receiving members of the public at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park.

The Haifa facility will operate 24/7 and be able to conduct up to 1,500 tests in a day, with results taking roughly 72 hours.

MDA is also planning on opening such facilities in the cities of Jerusalem, Petah Tikva and Beersheba in the coming days.

The facilities are only open to those who have received approval from their doctor, which will be sent in an SMS text message.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel will reach 3,000 tests per day by Sunday and in the following days hit 5,000.

Confined by virus, Frenchman runs marathon on his balcony

In the age of confinement, Elisha Nochomovitz figured out a way to run a marathon anyway – back and forth on his balcony.

That’s right. He ran 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) straight, never leaving his 7-meter-long (23-foot) balcony.

He saw it as a physical and mental challenge, but he also shared the images online as a way “to extend my support to the entire medical personnel who are doing an exceptional job,” he told The Associated Press from his apartment in Balma, a suburb of the southern French city of Toulouse.

Like athletes who ran around their Wuhan apartments or cyclists who found ways to train in their locked-down Abu Dhabi hotel rooms, Nochomovitz wanted to show others that it’s possible to stay fit as virus containment measures tighten around the world.

????FINISHER MARATHON DE MON BALCON????.????️Je viens courir pendant près de 7heures sur mon balcon de 7 mètres de long et…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Elisha Nochomovitz‎‏ ב- יום שלישי, 17 במרץ 2020

He also wanted to lighten the mood. “It was about launching a bit of a crazy challenge and bringing a bit of humor, to de-dramatize the confinement situation,” he said.

He didn’t exactly make record time. It took him six hours and 48 minutes.

He got nauseous, and got worried the neighbors would complain about the pounding of his footsteps.

But he did it.

Technically the French authorities still allow people to go outside for “individual sports” like running, if they sign a special form explaining why.

But the number of joggers in French streets has multiplied in recent days, amid exceptionally balmy weather. And that has authorities worried that too many people are still out in the streets, threatening efforts to contain the virus.

“If everyone thinks the same way and does the same thing, we’ll all find ourselves outside and that won’t help anything, and the message that we need to stay confined at home will have had no impact,” he said.

Nochomovitz had been training for a marathon, and said “I needed to assure myself that I could still run 40 kilometers whatever the condition.”

He lost track of how many laps he did, but his pedometer kept track while his mind wandered.

“I thought about many things, what’s going to happen, when I see that the world has stopped, sports, economy, finance,” he said. “We learned in history about wars between nations, men and weapons, but this is something that is beyond us.”

He especially thought about medics, “the real everyday heroes.”

And he had a key helper. “I had my girlfriend here who was giving me drinks and M&Ms.”

Outside, some onlookers stared in confusion.

And his neighbors? “They were very understanding.”

— AP

Confusion over coronavirus guidelines, as police reportedly dispersing Israelis out on short walks

Some media reports indicate certain levels of confusion among members of the public as to what exactly is and is not allowed.

For instance, up until Friday guidelines allowed non-organized sports activities in groups of up to five people, but this was then lowered down to two people — a change many seem unaware of.

In addition, no time limit has been given for sports activities, as opposed to the 10-minute limit for strolls with children or pets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov are set to discuss issuing sharper, clearer guidelines to encourage the public to stay home.

Police say they have broken up unauthorized gatherings in Tel Aviv and its Givatayim suburb, including some who were picnicking or otherwise engaged in activities not allowed under the new rules.

Videos shows police ordering people away from parks and other recreational areas, though it was unclear whether those using the parks for the authorized sports activities were in breach of any rules.

People were also seen in the city’s Yarkon Park, though it appeared far emptier than usual.

One woman tells Haaretz that police had told her to leave Yarkon Park, even though she was there for a walk, as she is used to walking several miles every day.

Gantz promises supporters that Knesset will be back up and running on Monday

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz promises supporters demonstrating outside of his home that he will make sure the Knesset is back up and running on Monday after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein ordered the parliament shuttered last week.

“On Monday we will re-establish the Knesset and we will do everything to pass laws and keep our promises,” he says.

TV networks continue to violate Health Ministry guidelines while reporting on outbreak

TV networks continue to violate the Health Ministry’s guidelines that bar people from being closer than two meters away from another in order to maintain the coronavirus outbreak.

Channel 12 currently is hosting a panel of seven analysts where they’re all sitting right next to one another.

Channel 12 panelists violating Health Ministry guidelines that bar people from being closer than two meters away from another on March 21, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

Liberman calls on government to demonstrate ‘example’ to public and agree to pay cuts

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman tells Channel 12 that members of the transitional government or whatever government might be formed in the coming weeks should demonstrate an “example” and agree to cuts to their salaries.

Liberman says that one million Israelis will be unemployed as a result of the outbreak and that ministers and lawmakers don’t need the luxurious salaries they’re receiving.

Liberman: Netanyahu exploiting coronavirus for political purposes

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman accuses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “exploiting the coronavirus in order to skip over political procedures.”

In a Channel 12 interview, he argues that it is inappropriate for Netanyahu to serve as the spokesman for the government’s response, saying an apolitical individual should be appointed, similar to during the Gulf War when Army Radio’s Nachman Shai would provide regular updates to the public.

Asked if now is the time to switch prime ministers, Liberman says Gantz was the one given the mandate from the president to form a government and that he had no problem supporting the Blue and White leader. Liberman also says he’d be okay with Netanyahu continuing as prime minister.

He says the only government he wants to see right now is a two-party unity government made up of Blue and White and Likud, with all other factions supporting from the outside.

Channel 12: Health Ministry not expected to expand restrictions tonight

Channel 12 reports that the Health Ministry is not expected to further expand its guidelines against the coronavirus outbreak later this evening.

However, the ministry is also said to be greatly disturbed by the large number of Israelis who have been seen today walking through parks and boardwalks.

Police in Jordan arrest 400 for violating lockdown — report

Police in Jordan have arrested 400 people for violating the nationwide curfew that went into effect at 7 a.m. this morning, The Guardian reports.

The curfew bars locals from even going to the grocery store, which led to a rush to supermarkets last night when the lockdown was announced.

Liberman blasts government for ordering coronavirus testing labs closed during Shabbat

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman tells Channel 12, “there’s a lot of talk [by Prime Minister Netanyahu] and not enough action… Not enough respirators. not enough tests. Labs aren’t working on weekends. In an emergency situation like this, it’s absolute insanity.”

Amazon stops providing free shipping to Israeli orders over $49 — report

In a blow to Israeli postal services, Ynet reports that Amazon has ceased providing free shipping to orders from Israel that are more than $49, as it had been offering since November 2019.

Health Ministry official dismisses reports that testing labs have been closed on Shabbat

Sigal Sadetzki, head of public health at the Health Ministry, dismisses reports that testing labs have been closed on Shabbat.

She says that seven of 21 labs continued operating on Friday and 14 are operating today. She tells Channel 12 that those which were not operating were only set up on Thursday and were still preparing to get off the ground.

Ambassadors call on Israelis abroad to return home before countries shut down airports

A statement from the Foreign Ministry says that ambassadors around the world are calling on Israelis to book flights home before countries’ shut down their airports.

In addition, Foreign Minister Israel Katz has instructed the Foreign Ministry to put together a “national emergency plan to rescue Israelis abroad.”

Italy reports almost 800 new virus deaths, setting daily record

Italy’s tally of coronavirus cases and deaths keeps rising, with new day-to-day highs: 793 dead and 6,557 new cases.

— AP

Half a million Israelis have filed for unemployment since start of March

Half a million Israelis have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the month, according to a Welfare Ministry statement.

Police official says enforcement against violation of Health Ministry guidelines to intensify

A police official tells the Walla news site that officers will begin intensifying their enforcement against violators of Health Ministry guidelines aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak.

“There will be even more police on the streets dealing with crowds and enforcing against businesses violating the guidelines,” the official says.

Global virus death toll tops 12,000 — AFP tally

Deaths from the coronavirus pandemic topped 12,000 across the globe at 1710 GMT on Saturday, according to an AFP tally compiled from official figures.

A total of 12,592 people have died, most in Europe (7,199) and Asia (3,459). With 4,825 deaths, Italy has a higher toll than even China (3,255) where the outbreak began late last year.

— AFP

France to use helcopters, drones to enforce virus restrictions

France is calling up helicopters and drones to boost the government’s attempts to keep people in their homes, police officials say.

“The helicopters will give us a larger vision and a panoramic view of the situation in real time to help guide the patrols on the ground,” a national gendarmerie source says.

One helicopter was already in use on Saturday, hovering above major Paris parks to ensure that confinement rules were respected.

Drones will also be used to help keep people confined, in particular to keep an eye on the banks of the Seine.

France has been in lockdown since midday on Tuesday, with excursions from the home limited to buying food, visiting the doctor, walking the dog or going for a solitary jog.

The measures come as the government mulled expanding the two-week home confinement imposed on all residents in a bid to brake the epidemic that has seen more than 9,000 infected with the virus in France, and 372 deaths.

No gatherings are allowed, and workers can only go to the office if their employer does not provide an option for working from home.

People who venture outside need to carry a certificate, which can be printed from the government website, to declare the reason for their trip, and risk a 135-euro ($145) fine if they cannot show one.

The government has deployed 100,000 police to monitor people’s movements. No curfew has been imposed.

— AFP

ZAKA emergency service locates four Haredi individuals who tested positive for COVID-19

The ZAKA ultra-Orthodox emergency service says its volunteers operated throughout Shabbat in Haredi towns in order to locate individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19, but who the Health Ministry had been unable to contact.

Zaka located four people in the towns of Safed, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, and Ashdod as well as a couple from Mercaz Shapira who were exposed to a carrier of the virus.

 

PM to weigh intensifying guidelines amid reports of violators throughout Shabbat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold discussions over the evening with Health Ministry officials regarding the possibility of intensifying the guidelines aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak after police reported large numbers of violators throughout the day, the PMO says in a statement.

Channel 13 warns of outbreak in Arab communities where testing extremely limited

Channel 13 reports that Israel’s Arab communities are at risk of a major outbreak of the coronavirus, partially due to the fact that testing there has been very limited.

There are many towns where the Magen David Adom emergency service, which is leading the testing effort, does not even agree to enter, Channel 13 reports.

New Jersey orders residents to stay at home over virus

New Jersey becomes the latest American state to order residents to stay at home in a bid to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Governor Phil Murphy says all gatherings were canceled and non-essential businesses “must indefinitely close their physical stores” from 9:00 PM (0100 GMT Sunday).

“I don’t take this action lightly,” says Murphy.

The executive order is similar to effective lockdowns mandated in several other US states, including California, New York, Illinois and Connecticut.

Murphy said “essential public health, safety, and social services will remain accessible,” adding that grocery stores, food banks, pharmacies and gas stations would stay open.

Restaurants and bars are permitted to operate for take-out and delivery only, he added.

Around 30 percent of Americans are on various phases of virtual lockdown, including in the country’s three biggest cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 278 Americans, with more than 22,000 confirmed cases in the United States, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.

— AFP

Uber tells riders to sit in back seat and keep windows open

The Uber ride-sharing service has issued a statement calling on riders to sit in the back seat and keep the windows down in an effort to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

Israir to offer 2 flights from Italy to Israelis stuck in country hit hardest by outbreak

Israir Airlines will offer two flights on Monday for Israelis stranded in Italy, the country hit hardest by the coronavirus.

The staff will be wearing full protective gear from head to toe and those who return to Israel on those flights will be ordered to immediately enter quarantine.

Transportation Minister enters quarantine after coming in contact with carrier

Bezalel Smotrich’s office says the transportation minister has quarantined himself at his home in the Kedumim settlement after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this evening.

Smotrich met with the individual last Tuesday.

A statement from the minister says he will continue serving the public from home and that he calls on all Israelis to adhere to the Health Ministry guidelines aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak.

US VP Pence, wife to be tested for coronavirus after staffer infected

US Vice President Mike Pence says that he and his wife would be tested for coronavirus after one of his office staffers contracted the illness.

Pence says that there was little reason to believe he had been exposed to the employee, who has not been to the White House since Monday.

However, he says, “given the unique position that I have as vice president and as the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, both I and my wife will be tested for the coronavirus later this afternoon.”

— AFP

German gov’t to unveil biggest post-war aid package in virus fight

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is planning to unveil an economic rescue package worth 822 billion euros — the biggest in Germany’s post-war history — to fund the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, according to a draft bill seen by AFP Saturday.

To finance the extraordinary measures ranging from partial nationalizations to credit guarantees to salary top-ups for workers forced into part-time, the government will also shed its debt averse attitude.

Not only will Merkel’s government drop its dogma of keeping the budget balanced, it will go a step further to seek permission from parliament to raise the legal limit on its annual borrowings.

Merkel’s government will seek to borrow 156 billion euros for 2020, a sum that exceeds a constitutional limit by 100 billion euros.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic which has brought all travel to a standstill, forced employees into working shorter hours and left most shops shut, Merkel has vowed that Germany will do whatever it takes to preserve its economy.

“We will do what we can to get through this situation well, and we will see at the end of that where our budget stands,” she had said last week, stressing that ending the virus crisis “comes first.”

— AFP

PMO: Open markets to remain open for now, but decision to be reviewed in three days

The PMO says that open markets such as Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem will remain open for the time being, but that the matter will be reviewed in three days.

According to Haaretz, the Health Ministry had pushed for such markets to be closed as they have been seen to cause crowding among shoppers, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture Minister Miri Regev pushed back on the recommendation, concerned that shopowners would not be able to recover from such a decision.

Netanyahu: I fear US at risk of becoming Italy, France, Spain and UK

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that the health care system in the US is at risk of being overwhelmed, with scenarios similar to those that have unfolded in Italy, Spain, France and the UK.

PM argues that anti-Netanyahu bloc does not actually have a majority

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues in a Channel 12 interview that the 61-MK bloc led by Blue and White known as the anti-Netanyahu camp does not really represent a majority in the Knesset because many people who voted for Blue and White did so while believing the centrist alliance’s leadership would not rely on the outside support of the majority-Arab Joint List.

Netanyahu: If Blue and White ousts Knesset speaker, there won’t be a unity gov’t

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that if Blue and White moves to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Monday, Likud’s unity government offer will no longer be on the table.

PM offers to enshrine into law requirement for Gantz to replace him at agreed-upon date

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that he will agree to enshrine into law the requirement for him to step down at the date agreed upon with Benny Gantz when the Blue and White leader will replace him as premier in a unity deal.

The deal would see Netanyahu serve for a year and a half followed by Gantz for an equal amount of time, he says.

NJ police arrest Jewish man who hosted 50 guests for ‘pop-up wedding’ in home

Police in Lakewood, New Jersey have arrested a Jewish man who hosted 50 guests for a “pop-up wedding” in his home, the local CBS affiliate reports.

Lakewood police have charged 49-year-old Eliyohu Zaks with maintaining a nuisance, CBS reports.

PM speculates that Israel will reach 10,000 tests per day

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speculates during a Channel 13 interview that the country will reach 10,000 tests per day.

Netanyahu had promised earlier in the week that by Sunday there would be 3,000 tests per day, with 5,000 being the next goal.

Pressed on shortages in protection for medical staff, PM says problem is worldwide

Pressed by Channel 13 on the shortage in protective gear for medical staff, Netanyahu points out that this is a problem that countries worldwide are dealing with and is not unique to Israel.

However, he does not elaborate on efforts to deal with the shortage.

On Channel 12 earlier, he said Israel was both manufacturing equipment and obtaining it from overseas.

Gantz responds to Netanyahu: Those who want unity gov’t don’t give ultimatums

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz responds to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told Channel 12 that if the centrist alliance ousts Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Likud’s unity government offer will be off the table.

“Netanyahu, those who want unity do not work toward such a result through ultimatums, do not rampantly leak to the press and certainly do not harm the democracy through paralyzing the Knesset,” Gantz tweets.

PM vows to prevent collapse of El AL

“We cannot let such a thing collapse,” Netanyahu tells Channel 13, when asked to promise to prevent the fall of Israel’s El Al Airlines.

PM declines to apologize for personal attacks on Gantz, offers to put differences aside

Pressed by Channel 13 to apologize for the personal attacks made by him and his Likud party against Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Netanyahu declines to do so, instead calling on his rival to simply place their differences aside and form a unity government.

65K ‘attend’ virtual protest against Netanyahu

Some 65,000 people “attended” an online protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein who ordered parliament be shuttered earlier this week.

The “defending the democracy” demonstration organized by the Darkenu grassroots group saw former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy, former Supreme Court chief justice Elyakim Rubinstein, TV personality Lucy Aharish, actress Gila Almagor and Movement for Quality Government head Eliad Shraga address attendees over Facebook Live.

At its peak, neary 600,000 watched the live-stream. (Sixty-five thousand people clicked “attending” on the Facebook event and nearly 600,000 tuned in at its height.)

Addressing the protest, Diskin called on Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz not to serve in a government under Netanyahu.

“The current battle for democracy is no less important than previous wars,” Diskin asserts, accusing the Likud government of seeking to destroy the country’s democracy, adding that a lawmaker facing indictment must not be allowed to serve as premier.

Security guard at Israeli Consulate in New York tests positive for coronavirus

A security guard at the Israeli Consulate in New York has tested positive for COVID-19 and has entered home quarantine to prevent spreading the virus, the Foreign Ministry says.

He is the bodyguard of Consular General Dani Dayan, who has entered quarantine.

The security detail has not been in contact with Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon for two weeks.

An MFA spokesperson adds that it’s currently unclear how many other consulate workers must self-quarantine,  and they’re checking who else he had been in contact with.

Tomorrow’s cabinet meeting canceled

Ministers have received notice that tomorrow’s weekly cabinet meeting has been canceled. No alternative date has been set for the session.

2 more workers at Beersheba Magistrate’s Court test positive for coronavirus

Two more workers at the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court have tested positive for the coronavirus, joining two others who were found to be carriers earlier this week, a court spokesman says.

Iran president foresees virus relief, even as death toll tops 1,500

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says authorities’ efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic would produce significant results within 15 days, as the country’s official death toll from the virus surpassed 1,500.

There were 123 more fatalities — taking the country’s death toll to 1,556 — and 966 more cases of the novel coronavirus reported in Iran over the past 24 hours, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announces in a televised address.

He adds that 20,610 people were now known to have been infected so far in the Islamic Republic.

Despite the increasing toll, Rouhani says the government’s response to the virus is producing “a lot of impact,” indicating “the situation will change automatically within 10 to 15 days” if “everyone observes the directives,” according to a statement by the presidency.

The Islamic Republic is among the three countries hardest hit by the virus, with an official death toll behind only Italy and China. In contrast with these countries, Iran has not enforced isolation measures.

“The principle is that, as much as possible, people do not leave their homes,” Rouhani says. He also urges “shopping centers where large numbers of people gather” to close.

The country’s largest shopping center, Iran Mall, located in the west of the capital Tehran, has shuttered and a section is being converted into a makeshift health centre able to accommodate up to 3,000 patients, an AFP journalist reports.

The mortality rate from coronavirus in Iran is around 7.5 percent and the rate of recovery 37 percent, according to the figures provided by Jahanpour.

A total of 7,635 people have recovered from the disease across the country, he said.

All 31 of Iran’s provinces have reported cases, with the northeastern province of Semnan reporting the largest number of infections per capita.

For weeks ahead of the Persian New Year holidays, which began on Friday and usually see large numbers of Iranians take to the roads for tourism or to visit relatives, authorities have asked people to avoid all travel.

But the pleas have been ignored by many.

The Iranian Red Crescent said on Friday that around three million people have left the 13 most virus-affected provinces by road since March 17, but Rouhani said that overall travel had declined sharply.

Jahanpour says there was “a minority who did not follow the guidelines,” warning that provinces popular with tourists would not welcome visitors for the Nowruz holiday.

Some provinces have ordered hotels and other accommodation to close.

— AFP

Country music legend Kenny Rogers dies at 81

Country music legend Kenny Rogers, who helped bring the genre into the mainstream during a career spanning six decades, has died at the age of 81, his family announced.

With hits like “The Gambler,” “Lucille” and the duet “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton, the three-time Grammy winner left an indelible mark on American music.

“Rogers passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family,” the family says in a statement.

The family was planning a small private service “out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency.”

— AFP

Report: Number of coronavirus cases to climb by 300 after weekend slow-down in testing

Channel 12 reports that while today only saw a rise of 178 coronavirus cases, this was because testing was slowed down during Shabbat, with more than a handful of laboratories closed for the weekend.

A Health Ministry official speaking to Channel 12 says the number will climb to over 300 when a new update is released tomorrow morning, bringing Israel to more than 1,000 cases.

Lebanon calls in army to enforce coronavirus lockdown

Lebanon has called in the army and security forces to ensure people stay at home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that has killed four people nationwide.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab says the number of cases had risen to 230 in the country despite a call almost a week ago for all to remain at home.

Warning of a further spike to epidemic levels if people continued to flout social distancing rules, he said the government was calling in the army and security forces.

His administration decided to “task the army, Internal Security, General Security and State Security to… implement the order for citizens not to leave their homes, except out of extreme necessity, and prevent gatherings contravening” the order, Diab says.

This would take the form of patrols and road blocks, and those found disobeying would be pursued.

Diab again calls on all Lebanese to observe a curfew, “as the state cannot face this creeping epidemic on its own.”

— AFP

Virus advances worldwide as medical supplies dwindle

The US and Europe are reporting soaring new cases of the novel coronavirus, prompting a scramble in some regions to set up additional hospital beds and replenish much-needed medical supplies.

Italy announced its biggest day-to-day increase of infections, which rose by 6,600 with nearly 800 new fatalities from the virus that causes COVID-19. The country’s total death toll of more than 4,825 has surpassed the number of deaths in China, where the first cases emerged late last year.

In the US, where multiple states have ordered residents to stay indoors, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the government is “literally scouring the globe looking for medical supplies.” Health care workers from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis are seeking donations of protective equipment. Staff at a Detroit hospital begin creating homemade face masks for workers. Even rural hospitals are strained as people increasingly felt the pandemic closing in.

The contagion is starting to be felt in US cities far from major metropolitan areas, including places that have resisted drastic shutdown measures. About 150 countries now have confirmed cases, and deaths have been reported in more than 30 American states. There are now more than 300,000 confirmed cases worldwide, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.

— AP

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Global virus death toll tops 12,000 — AFP tally

Deaths from the coronavirus pandemic topped 12,000 across the globe at 1710 GMT on Saturday, according to an AFP tally compiled from official figures.

A total of 12,592 people have died, most in Europe (7,199) and Asia (3,459). With 4,825 deaths, Italy has a higher toll than even China (3,255) where the outbreak began late last year.

— AFP