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In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani attends a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, on March 18, 2020.

The Associated Press

Iran on Wednesday reported its single biggest jump in fatalities from the coronavirus as another 147 people died, raising the country’s overall death toll to 1,135.

The nearly 15 per cent spike in deaths – amid a total of 17,361 confirmed cases in Iran – marks the biggest 24-hour rise in fatalities since Iranian officials first acknowledged infections of the virus in mid-February.

Even as the number of cases grows, food markets were still packed with shoppers and highways were crowded as families travelled ahead of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on Friday.

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Deputy health minister Alireza Raisi urged the public to avoid travel and crowds, telling Iranians the days ahead represented two “golden weeks” to try to curb the virus.

He criticized people for not adhering to the warnings to stay home. “This is not a good situation at all,” he said.

President Hassan Rouhani defended his government’s response to the outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that Iran acted too slowly and might even have covered up initial cases. He told his cabinet the government was being “straightforward,” saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it Feb. 19.

“We spoke to people in an honest way. We had no delay,” he added.

For weeks, officials implored clerics to shut down crowded Shiite shrines to halt the spread of the virus. The government finally closed them this week.

“It was difficult, of course, to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it,” Mr. Rouhani said.

Iran also said it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week. Other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have done so as well.

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The coronavirus has infected more than 200,000 people globally and killed more than 8,000. For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority recover.

World Health Organization director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, Ahmed Al-Mandhari, said the many travel restrictions imposed by various countries are hurting efforts to combat the virus by delaying both the deployment of health experts and the delivery of urgently needed medical supplies.

The Israeli Health Ministry said 90 more people had tested positive, bringing the country’s total number of infections to 427. Authorities have put the country in near-shutdown mode, ordering tens of thousands of people into home quarantine, turning unused hotels into hospitals and setting up drive-through testing centres.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of catastrophic consequences if instructions aren’t followed. “This is a huge crisis. We are only at the start of the campaign,” he said in an address Tuesday evening.

Most controversially, the Israeli government has instructed the shadowy Shin Bet internal security service to deploy phone surveillance technology to curb the spread of the virus in Israel by tracking movements of those infected.

In Iraq, a week-long curfew began in Baghdad, allowing pedestrians on the streets only to buy necessary food and medicine. Armed police patrolled the city and set up road blocks.

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Still, some defied the curfew to observe the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Mousa al-Kazim. Thousands typically walk to his shrine in the Khadimiya area outside of Baghdad. Several men, women and children moved solemnly down Baghdad’s Saadoun Street, determined to complete the journey. Police did not try to stop them.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the hub of anti-government protests, issued a statement that they were suspending activities because of the virus. Iraq has had 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.

In the Egyptian capital of Cairo, coffee shops and restaurants were closed in the city of over 20 million, with plainclothes security forces urging people to go home.

“I am financially ruined. How can I earn my living now?” said Mohammed Gamal, a worker in a coffee shop that was shut down by authorities.

Egypt, which has reported nearly 200 cases and six deaths from the virus, has suspended flights, closed schools and quarantined more than 300 families in a Nile Delta village. It also imposed a lockdown in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada and ordered all workers at hotels and tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh, Luxor and Aswan to self quarantine for 14 days.

A 12-hour evening curfew was announced in Libya’s east, which is governed by the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces and commanded by General Khalifa Hifter. They also closed borders with neighbouring Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria. No virus cases have been reported in Libya, where the health-care system has been decimated by years of conflict.

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After announcing the first coronavirus death in Pakistan, government spokesman Faizullah Faraq corrected his earlier statement by saying the victim, a 90-year-old man in the country’s northern Gilgit Baltistan region, had actually died of pneumonia. The latest medical report suggested the man had not tested positive for the coronavirus, he said.

Pakistani media had extensively reported the death in the country, which has 289 confirmed cases.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who this week visited China along with the country’s President Arif Alvi, said he is protectively quarantining himself on doctor’s advice.

In Saudi Arabia, those in the public and private sectors were asked to work from home for two weeks. Only essential staff for supply-chain services, food delivery, grocery stores, pharmacies, health care and security are not working from home. As global stock markets remain volatile, the United Arab Emirates’ Securities and Commodities Authority said local exchanges would only be able to fluctuate 5 per cent, rather than 10 per cent, before trading is suspended.

Leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies may hold an extraordinary meeting next week about advancing a co-ordinated response to the pandemic. Saudi Arabia, which currently leads the G20 presidency, said it is communicating with countries to convene the virtual meeting.

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