First Iraqis catch coronavirus amid fear of Iran epidemic spillover

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First Iraqis catch coronavirus amid fear of Iran epidemic spillover

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq shut schools and universities on Tuesday and told citizens to avoid mass gatherings, as it rushed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from its neighbor Iran, hit by what appears to be the worst outbreak outside of China.

Iraqi people wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as they walk past burning tires ignited by Iraqi protesters to block the road during ongoing anti-government protests in Nassiriya, Iraq February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Dhahi

An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus in Iraq’s northern Kirkuk province. They were the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease, a day after an Iranian theology student in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf became Iraq’s first confirmed case.

Measures to curb the spread could have major political repercussions in Iraq, where around 500 people have been killed in anti-government street demonstrations since last year. A populist cleric called off plans on Tuesday for a “million-man” demonstration.

Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak. It has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranian pilgrims each year at holy festivals that span the calendar.

The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from Iran and China, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.

On Tuesday the government urged Iraqis to avoid all public gatherings and announced a range of measures to curb them. Gatherings were banned outright in Najaf, one of the most heavily-visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Schools and universities were shut, for 10 days in Najaf and indefinitely in Kirkuk. The autonomous northern Kurdish region canceled all education until after a March 20 holiday.

Iraq’s neighbor Iran has reported 16 coronavirus deaths, the most outside China, and at least 95 confirmed cases including the deputy health minister and a lawmaker. On Monday it said it had 900 suspected cased, which, if confirmed, would be the most outside China. The semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people have been hospitalized in Iran.

International experts worry that official numbers could underestimate the scale of Iran’s outbreak, because of a high number of cases reported among people traveling from Iran.

The four new cases in Iraq were placed in quarantine, the health ministry said. The Iranian student was sent back to Iran by ambulance.

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic have grown sharply this week after sharp rises in new cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea. The virus has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,660 in China, where it originated late last year.

WORLD’S BIGGEST CEMETERY

Najaf, burial place of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, attracts millions of Shi’ite pilgrims each year. It is home to the world’s biggest cemetery, where Shi’ites from around the world, especially Iran and Iraq, are sent to be buried.

The governor of Kerbala, another nearby Shi’ite holy city which attracts millions of pilgrims a year, banned Iranian and Chinese visitors. Iranians are the biggest group of foreign pilgrims and Chinese employees work at an oil refinery there.

It remains to be seen how the efforts to curb public gatherings will affect the public demonstrations that have sustained Iraq’s domestic political crisis.

Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else”.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya, and a Reuters correspondent in Kerbala; Editing by Peter Graff

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