8% of Iran parliament members test positive for coronavirus

Lawmaker Abdul Reza Misri said 23 members of parliament have been infected, according to state TV-affiliated website YJC; Misri did not specify when they had been infected.

8% of Iran parliament members test positive for coronavirus

Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said 2,336 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Iran | Photo from REUTERS

Iran has had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where it originated, and several officials have been infected – including the head of Iran’s emergency medical services, ILNA news agency reported on Tuesday.

Eight per cent of Iran’s parliament has been tested positive for coronavirus, according to a CNN report.

Lawmaker Abdul Reza Misri said 23 members of parliament have been infected, according to state TV-affiliated website YJC.

He did not specify when they had been infected.

According to Iran’s deputy parliament speaker Abdul Reza Misri, 23 parliament members out of 290 have tested positive for the coronavirus, the report said, adding that meetings between lawmakers and citizens were cancelled in the wake of coronavirus outbreak in Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that Iranians should follow the recommendations of authorities to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as the deputy health minister reported more infections and a higher death toll of 77.

The death of one top official was reported on Monday.

Khamenei said government bodies and the armed forces should give full support to the health ministry and that Iranian authorities have dealt transparently with the virus’s spread.

“Don’t violate the recommendations and instructions of the responsible authorities in terms of prevention, in terms of keeping hands, face and living environment clean and not infecting these and preventing the infection of these,” he said.

Khamenei also said the outbreak should not be overblown.

Separately, Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said 2,336 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Iran.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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Iran’s supreme leader orders armed forces to combat coronavirus

Iran’s supreme leader ordered on Tuesday the Islamic Republic’s armed forces to assist its Health Ministry in combating the spread of the new coronavirus.

The decision by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comes as Iran has the highest death toll from the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes outside of China, the epicenter of the virus.

Khamenei’s decision was announced after state media broadcast images of him planting a tree wearing disposable gloves ahead of Iran’s upcoming arbor day.

“Whatever helps public health and prevents the spread of the disease is good and what helps to spread it is sin,” Khamenei said.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei participates in a tree-planting ceremony in Tehran, Iran on Tuesday. (Photo: AP)

After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities now say they have plans to potentially mobilise 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.

Concern over the outbreak now stretches to Iran’s top leadership – some of whom have fallen ill from the virus.

An activist group also said on Tuesday that Wikipedia’s Farsi-language website appeared to be disrupted in Iran after a close confidant to the supreme leader died of the new coronavirus.

The advocacy group NetBlocks linked the death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi to the disruption, though Iranian officials and its state media did not immediately acknowledge it. Authorities face increasing criticism from the Iranian public over the outbreak amid concerns the number of cases from the virus may be higher than currently reported.

NetBlocks described the disruption to accessing Farsi Wikipedia as being nationwide, saying its technical testing suggests the online encyclopedia is being blocked by the same mechanism used to block Twitter and Facebook. Those social media websites have been banned since Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and Green Movement protests.

Some Iranians said that they couldn’t access Wikipedia’s Farsi website since Monday night. Others said they could, including through the site’s mobile-friendly pages.

“The new restrictions come as Iran faces a growing crisis following the loss of senior state figures to coronavirus and a spate of criticism and misinformation have spread through social media,” NetBlocks said in its analysis.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees the volunteer-edited encyclopedia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. NetBlocks previously reported internet disruptions affecting Iran in recent days and users across the Islamic Republic have reported problems.

The disruption raises fears of Iran potentially shutting off the internet entirely again, as it did for a week during economic protests in November. Iran separately has created its own so-called “halal” net of government-approved websites.

Iran announced Monday that the virus had killed at least 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases. There are now 1,700 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic, which after China has the highest death toll from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

Yet experts still worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4 per cent, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show. Saudi Arabia and Jordan meanwhile announced their first cases of the virus Monday.

Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Mirmohammadi’s death makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran’s theocracy to be killed by the virus. The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.

Those sick include Vice-President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as “Sister Mary,” the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Middle East’s largest airline, Emirates, said it had to reduce or ground flights due to the new virus. Because of the slowdown, the government-owned carrier has asked its employees to take paid and even unpaid leave for up to a month at a time. Emirates’ operates out of Dubai, the world’s busiest for international travel.

“We have been tested before and Emirates will come out stronger,” Chief Operating Officer Adel Al-Redha said.

The world’s largest airline trade association, IATA, says Mideast carriers have already lost around USD 100 million in revenue due to a drop in ticket sales because of disruptions caused by the virus.

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Netanyahu leads in Israeli election, but still lacks majority

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led on Tuesday in Israel’s third national election in less than a year but was short of a governing majority, nearly complete results showed.

Netanyahu claimed victory in Monday’s vote over his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, after exit polls projected the right-wing leader’s Likud party had come out on top.

We turned lemons into lemonade, he told a cheering crowd at Likud’s election headquarters as exit polls were released.

But Gantz stopped short of conceding defeat, saying the election could result in another deadlock and he understood and shared his supporters’ feeling of disappointment and pain.

With some 90 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu, who has the pledged support of right-wing and religious parties for a coalition government, appeared to control 59 seats in parliament, two short of a ruling majority.

The gap made former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party a potential kingmaker after remaining on the sidelines in inconclusive ballots in April and September.

A win for Netanyahu, 70, would be testament to the political durability of Israel’s longest-serving leader, who fought the latest campaign under the shadow of a looming corruption trial.

It would also pave the way for Netanyahu to make good on his pledge to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the region’s Jordan Valley, under a peace plan presented by US President Donald Trump.

Palestinians have rejected the proposal, saying it would kill their dream of establishing a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

PICKING SIDES

Likud led Blue and White by 36 seats to 32, and Lieberman’s party, with seven, could tip the balance in complicated coalition building. A Likud spokesman said he expected Netanyahu to get lawmakers from the opposing camp to cross sides.

Lieberman said he would convene his party on Thursday afternoon to choose who to back.

As we promised voters, we will do everything to prevent a fourth election and we intend to take decisive action, one way or another, Lieberman told Israeli Channel 12 TV.

Critical of control Orthodox rabbis have over aspects of life in Israel and of military conscription exemptions granted to Jewish seminary students, he has balked at joining a Likud-led coalition with religious parties.

Lieberman also has pledged not to partner with any Blue and White-led coalition dependent on the support of Arab parties.

In the previous election, in September, Blue and White edged past Likud, taking 33 seats to its rival’s 32, but Gantz, like Netanyahu, was unable to put together a ruling coalition.

The mostly Arab Joint List party again emerged as the third-largest, growing to 15 seats from 13 in the last election.

ACRIMONIOUS CAMPAIGN

Israel’s economy has weathered the political stalemate, with growth strong and the labour market tight. The main issue has been no budget since the 2019 one was passed two years ago.

During an acrimonious race focused more on character than on policy, Netanyahu campaigned vigorously on his strongman security-first platform, familiar to voters over decades.

His loyal, blue-collar base has stood firmly behind him throughout, seemingly unfazed by his imminent trial.

During the campaign, Gantz ruled out teaming up with Likud in a unity government because of the criminal indictments against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favours worth millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for favourable press coverage, and that he wrongfully received gifts.

The first trial of a sitting prime minister in Israel is due to begin on March 17.

ALSO READ: Benjamin Netanyahu, charged with bribery, fraud, claims victory in Israel election

ALSO READ: Israel drawing up map for West Bank annexations: PM Benjamin Netanyahu

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Myanmar turns away cruise ship over coronavirus fears

Myanmar stopped a cruise boat carrying hundreds of tourists from docking in the country, a senior tourism official said on Tuesday, citing fears passengers could be carrying the coronavirus.

The Silver Spirit, a luxury liner operated by Monaco-based Silversea Cruises, last docked at the Thai island of Phuket and was scheduled to stop at Thilawa, outside Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon on Wednesday.

“We have informed the … port authorities that the entry of this ship should not be allowed,” Khin Maung Soe, deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, told Reuters by phone.

He said he did not know whether any of the passengers were showing symptoms of the virus.

“Even if passengers haven’t shown the symptoms so far, they might when they arrive in Myanmar and it will be difficult for the country to control,” he said.

“If things get worse, our people might get affected.”

A statement by the Ministry of Health and Sports published on Facebook said the ship should not be allowed to enter because it had docked in countries with a high number of cases of the virus, including Thailand which has 43.

The boat has more than 400 passengers on board, a ministry spokesman said. It was not immediately clear where the ship would go next.

Myanmar borders China, where the virus first broke out late last year in the central city of Wuhan before spreading rapidly, but has reported no confirmed cases so far, though several people have been quarantined in a Yangon hospital.

The government has urged citizens to avoid public gatherings and the country’s military cancelled its annual parade scheduled for late March, citing the virus.

While the outbreak appears to be easing in China, it has surged elsewhere and countries other than China now account for about three-quarters of new infections.

Japan on Monday confirmed at least 19 new coronavirus cases, bringing the number of infections in the country to 980, including passengers who were infected on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Last month, a cruise ship arrived in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville having been turned away at five other ports after leaving Hong Kong.

Silversea Cruises in owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

ALSO READ | Coronavirus spreading 8 times faster outside China than inside, WHO raises concern as death toll mounts

ALSO READ | Coronavirus positive Bengaluru techie travelled to Hyderabad on bus, fellow passengers under watch

ALSO WATCH | In Depth | Global economy down with coronavirus

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Pope Francis tests negative for coronavirus, says Italy report

Pope Francis has tested negative for coronavirus, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported on Tuesday.

Pope Francis coughs during the Angelus noon prayer he recited from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, on Sunday. (Photo: AP)

Pope Francis, who cancelled a Lent retreat for the first time in his papacy because he is suffering from a cold, has tested negative for coronavirus, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported on Tuesday.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said he had no immediate comment on the report.

The 83-year-old Roman Catholic leader, who had part of one lung removed because of an illness decades ago, also canceled most audiences last week.

Francis was to have taken part in the week-long retreat with senior Vatican officials that began on Sunday night at a Church residence south of Rome.

But in a surprise announcement hours earlier, he said he would be following it from his residence in a Vatican guest house.

He has been taken ill at a time when Italy is battling a surging outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

The death toll in Italy jumped to 52 on Monday from 34 the day before and the total number of confirmed cases in Europe’s worst affected country climbed past the 2,000 mark.

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Indian-American appointed key member of US COVID-19 task force

Leading Indian-American health policy consultant Seema Verma has been appointed as one of the key members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force constituted by US President Donald Trump to combat the deadly disease that has claimed six lives in the country and infected over 90 others.

Trump on January 30 created the coronavirus task force to lead his administration’s response to the deadly virus that emerged in China and has wrecked havoc across the globe.

The task force is led by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and is coordinated through the National Security Council.

In a tweet on Monday, US Vice President Mike Pence announced the appointment of Seema Verma, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and Robert Wilkie, Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, to the task force.

“The White House Coronavirus Task Force has been working every single day to ensure the health, safety & well-being of the American people,” he tweeted.

“Today, we made good progress in combatting the spread of the Coronavirus and added key members, @SeemaCMS and @SecWilkie, to the Task Force,” he said.

All the six deaths in the US are from the Washington state with 43 domestic cases and 48 cases of the individuals who returned to the US, officials said on Monday.

Trump along with Pence reviewed the situation at the White House on Monday with top health officials and those leaders from the pharma corporate sector who are working on either vaccine or therapeutics for the COVID-19.

Responding to her appointment, Verma, 49, said that in the efforts to address the potential spread of the coronavirus, it is the time for healthcare facilities to redouble their erfforts on keeping the patients safe from infections of any kind.

“Thank you @POTUS Trump, @VP Pence, & @SecAzar for the opportunity to serve America’s patients & represent the @CMSGov perspective, which focuses on enforcing essential health and safety standards in America’s healthcare facilities and protecting patients,” she tweeted on Monday.

“As a reminder, facilities are required to comply w/ Medicare’s infection control practices. For #COVID19, we encourage you to take necessary precautions, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” she said.

“We at @CMSGov know that #healthcare providers & staff have their patients’ best interests at heart, & it’s incredibly important that they continue following the safety guidelines laid out by CMS & the @CDCGov,” she said.

Before becoming CMS Administrator, she was the President, CEO and founder of SVC, Inc., a national health policy consulting company. For over 20 years, Verma has worked extensively on a variety of policy and strategic projects involving Medicaid, insurance, and public health.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are 89,527 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,056 deaths reported globally in 67 countries.

ALSO READ | Coronavirus spreading 8 times faster outside China than inside, WHO raises concern as death toll mounts

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ALSO WATCH | In Depth | Global economy down with coronavirus

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Virus outbreak a litmus test for Singapore’s new leaders 

When a rare moment of panic buying shook Singapore’s highly ordered society over fears about the spread of coronavirus, it took a personal broadcast from the prime minister to bring calm.

As Lee Hsien Loong, a scion of Singapore’s founding family, prepares to step down after elections expected this year, the handling of the virus has become the defining test for a new generation of leaders.

How they handle a crisis, both the health and the economic crisis, will give confidence to Singaporeans on the ability of the 4G team to manage the country, said Inderjit Singh, a former MP for the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965.

4G refers to fourth generation, a term used to describe the group of ruling party politicians seen as future leaders.

While Lee’s PAP is expected to win an election which must be held by April 2021, even small shifts in its support can lead to policy changes that impact many international firms based in the Asian business hub.

After its worst ever result in 2011 – when it still secured 60% of the vote – the PAP accelerated foreign labour curbs amid unease among citizens about immigration levels and the impact on job prospects and property prices.

The PAP declined to comment.

TOUGHER TEST
Singapore’s battle with the disease is front-and-centre of voters’ minds with virus cases now over 100, analysts say, overshadowing issues such as immigration and living costs that had been expected to dominate the election before the city-state’s outbreak began in late January.

A poll last month by research firms Blackbox and Toluna showed 62% of Singaporeans were closely following virus news and information, more than in any of the eight other Asian places surveyed including Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Singapore has won international praise for its virus containment efforts.

But analysts say managing the economic fallout, which could tip Singapore into recession following decade-low growth in 2019, will be a tougher task.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – Lee’s would-be successor – last month budgeted for the biggest deficit in years with billions earmarked for managing the virus’ impact on firms and households.

People may forget about how the government dealt with the public health aspect, said Eugene Tan, a former nominated MP. Nominated MPs are appointed directly by the president and not affiliated to political parties.

Tan said any perception of economic mismanagement over the virus would be a bigger issue in an election he expects by year-end, and any blunders over Singapore’s response could hurt the ruling party well beyond that vote.

After 2018’s historic government ousting in neighbouring Malaysia, a vote that set off upheaval that has resurfaced in recent weeks, Lee said the party which he has led since 2004 did not have a “monopoly of power”. reut.rs/2TgF4b4

Lee, 68, has said he plans to step down by the time he is 70.

The officials spearheading Singapore’s virus fight have faced some criticism for what they said was a misunderstanding when they raised the virus alert level which sparked the panic buying of essentials like rice and toilet paper last month.

Trade minister Chan Chun Sing – another seen as a future party leader – called the panic buying disgraceful and idiotic in comments from a closed-door business briefing reported by local media.

Chong Ja Ian, political science professor at National University Singapore, said some people found Chan’s remarks condescending and others frank and forthcoming.

This mixed response to key individuals will also shape whether voters’ are satisfied with the 4G’s virus measures which is being couched as a litmus test for them, Chong said.

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Hong Kong to evacuate stranded residents from China’s Hubei

Hong Kong has arranged four charter flights to bring back 533 of its residents from the Chinese province of Hubei, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, about a month after countries around the world began evacuating their citizens.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the flights would return on Wednesday and Thursday and those coming back would be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.

Various countries including the United States, France, Germany and South Korea began evacuating hundreds of their citizens in late January or early February.

More than 3,800 Hong Kong residents in more than 30 cities in Hubei, of which Wuhan is capital, had asked the government of the Chinese-ruled, semi-autonomous city for help, creating a logistics headache for the government.

We do not feel that we have delayed the return of Hong Kong people stranded in Hubei, Lam told reporters at her weekly news conference.

As far as I understand, even up to this moment there are still very clear restrictions on exit arrangements … from Hubei province. As soon as the conditions were ready for us to help Hong Kong residents to come back to Hong Kong we have immediately made arrangements to do so.

The health crisis comes on the heels of months of anti-government protests triggered by fears the former British colony’s special autonomy is being eroded by meddling by Beijing. The Chinese government denies interfering in Hong Kong.

The coronavirus has killed two of the 100 people infected in the Asian financial hub.

Lam’s government has come under criticism from pro-democracy activists and legislators, as well as some business and pro-establishment figures, for its handling of the outbreak.

In particular, its decision not to fully close the border with mainland China was seen by many as a move to appease Beijing, leading to protests against plans to turn some buildings into quarantine centres, some of which turned violent.

In the first week of February, 8,000 doctors, nurses and medical workers in the newly formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) took part in a five-day strike, chanting: Close the border, save Hong Kong.

Lam has maintained the government’s response had no political considerations and was evidence-based and according to scientific advice and World Health Organisation guidelines.

She also said a full closure of the border would be inappropriate and discriminatory.

The epidemic has reduced the flow of visitors to the city to a trickle and kept residents indoors, dealing a severe blow to the retail and tourism industries at a time when the city’s economy was already enduring its worse recession in a decade.

The Hong Kong government announced last week its largest ever budget deficit to soften the economic blow.

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China’s Guangdong to require visitors from virus-hit countries to undergo quarantine

Australia will use a little-known biosecurity law to restrict the movements of people suspected of having the coronavirus, its attorney-general said on Tuesday.

Representative Image

China’s Guangdong province will require travelers arriving from countries and regions with severe coronavirus outbreaks to quarantine themselves for 14 days, the government-backed Nanfang Daily newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Guangdong is a major manufacturing and export hub.

The report, which did not specify which countries Guangdong was targeting, said this was part of the province’s efforts to strengthen health policy in view of how the epidemic was spreading outside China.

It said that between Feb. 27 to March 1, 1,496 people had entered the province from overseas areas hit hard by the virus but to date tests had shown that none had been infected. The virus was first detected in China in December and spread around the world, but new cases have been dropping in China recently.

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