Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani has contracted the coronavirus, the highest-ranking official among several senior government figures to catch the disease, as several top Israeli officials entered quarantine after Israel's health minister tested positive on Thursday.
The parliament in Iran, the regional epicenter of the coronavirus, announced Larijani's illness on its website, saying he was receiving treatment in quarantine.
Meanwhile Israel was rattled by the diagnosis of its health minister, who had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Middle East has over 82,000 confirmed cases of the virus and over 3,600 deaths, most of them in Iran. Iran's Health Ministry said Thursday that the new coronavirus killed another 124 people, pushing the country's death toll to 3,160.
In a rare acknowledgment of the severity of the outbreak by a senior Iranian official, President Hassan Rouhani said the new coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, state TV reported Thursday.
"We always have to follow the health protocols provided by the health ministry," Rouhani added.
In Lebanon, the Philippines ambassador, Bernardita Catalla, died of complications from the coronavirus Thursday, the Philippines said. Lebanon has recorded 494 cases, including 16 deaths.
Israel said Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife, who also contracted the virus, are in isolation, feel well and are being treated.
Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu's office said he returned to self-quarantine because of contact with Litzman. Netanyahu, who has tested negative, had previously been in isolation after a top aide tested positive for the virus.
Hebrew language media reported that the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency and the National Security Council were asked to self-quarantine because of their interactions with Litzman.
Israel has gone into near-lockdown to try to contain the outbreak. It has reported over 6,200 confirmed cases and 29 deaths of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Israel's large, insular ultra-Orthodox community, of which Litzman is a member, has been particularly hard hit. In the early phases of the outbreak, some rabbis had pushed back or ignored government-mandated movement restrictions, but resistance appears to have diminished.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia that can be fatal.
In Syria, the government extended the closures of mosques until April 16, nearly a week before the start of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims spend more time in prayers and worship. It also extended indefinitely a ban on visits to prison and detention facilities, citing concerns over the spread of the virus, and expanded curfew times over weekend days.
Rights groups have called on Mideast governments to release thousands of political detainees held in crammed and unhygienic jails. In government-controlled Syria, 10 cases of infection and two deaths were reported, amid concerns the virus may be more widespread.
The World Health Organization said it was increasing preparedness in the rebel-controlled, northwestern region of Syria that is home to nearly 4 million people, most of them displaced by the war and repeated government offensives. Only half of the health facilities are functioning in rebel-held territory, where displaced camps are crowded and the virus' transmission would be fast once it reaches the area.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is expected to wipe out $23 billion in passenger revenue from airlines across the Middle East and Africa this year, according to an assessment Thursday by the aviation industry's largest trade association.
The International Air Transport Association said Mideast airlines will see a $19 billion drop in revenue this year, compared to 2019. Airlines in Africa, which include EgyptAir, are expected to see a $4 billion drop. Hundreds of thousands of job in the aviation sector are also at risk across both regions.
Saudi Arabia's revenue loss could exceed $5.6 billion this year, as all pilgrimage flights are currently halted in addition to commercial flights to and from the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates, home to world's busiest airport for international travel in Dubai, is projected to lose $5.4 billion in revenue.
Egypt and Qatar could also see more than $1 billion each in revenue loss, while the aviation sector in South Africa is expected to lose $2.3 billion in potential revenue.
IATA said projections are based on assumptions that travel restrictions will continue through the second quarter of 2020. Even if travel recovers partially in the second half of the year, it will be slow and impacted by an overall slump in the global economy and weakened passenger demand.
In an address to the nation on Thursday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on the public to obey the restrictions introduced by the government and said that "every one of us can now help."
"We can do the shopping for our older neighbors. We can phone our relatives and perhaps in particular those with whom we rarely speak," Steinmeier emphasized, arguing that German citizens can contribute to the cohesion of the nation in various ways.
Steinmeier proposed that people should buy vouchers from "our favorite shops" that currently have to remain closed and to "order takeaways from our favorite restaurants." Also, German citizens could send cards or letters to their "loved ones in care," while not being allowed to visit them.
The turnover of entrepreneurs in Germany has fallen "drastically overnight" and there is no certainty about when shops and restaurants would be able to open again, warned Eric Schweizer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK).
As the livelihoods of many of artists and performers are at "acute risk now," Steinmeier also urged Germans not to ask for refunds for tickets for events that had been canceled.
Last week, the German government decided to provide up to 50 billion euros (54.5 billion U.S. dollars) in federal funding for self-employed persons and small-sized companies, including artists and cultural workers.
The coronavirus crisis "awakens our deepest fears," said Steinmeier. However, it "also brings out the best in us." Steinmeier called on all citizens to show "compassion" and "solidarity."
"If we succeed in doing this together, our society will not fall apart in this crisis. On the contrary, its members will become closer to each other," Steinmeier said, adding that he was "grateful to everyone who is helping."
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Thursday that China stands ready to support and assist Indonesia in overcoming the current challenge of the COVID-19 epidemic.
In a phone conversation with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, Xi noted that the coronavirus disease is breaking out in multiple countries and regions, including Indonesia. On behalf of the Chinese government and people, he extended sincere sympathies to their Indonesian counterparts.
After a strenuous struggle, the Chinese people have walked out of the most difficult period, Xi said, adding that China identifies with Indonesia's difficulties and is willing to offer help.
China, said the president, is confident that under the leadership of Widodo, Indonesia will prevail over the epidemic.
Xi stressed that in face of the severe pandemic, China and Indonesia have been supporting each other, which has demonstrated the profound friendship of sharing weal and woe and helping each other between the two countries.
Noting that this year marks the 70th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties, Xi said China is willing to work with Indonesia to continuously deepen cooperation in building the Belt and Road and push forward the development of their comprehensive strategic partnership.
The epidemic is a common challenge for all mankind, and only by fostering strong synergy can the international community defeat the enemy, stressed the president.
China and Indonesia, he suggested, should cooperate closely to push the Group of 20 major economies and the international community to play their roles in crisis response and global economic governance.
China will uphold the vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind, share its experience and provide as much support as it can for the global battle against COVID-19, and work with other countries to promote the development of global public health and build a community of common health for mankind, he added.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday rejected U.S. claims that Iran plans an attack on American troops in Iraq.
On Wednesday U.S. President Donald Trump alleged that "Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops or assets in Iraq."
Dismissing Trump's claims, Zarif said that "Iran starts no wars, but teaches lessons to those who do" so against Iran, Zarif tweeted.
In January, a U.S. airstrike killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, along with an Iraqi militia commander near Baghdad International Airport. U.S. claimed that Soleimani was planning to carry out attacks on Americans in Iraq, which Iran rejected.
The Syrian government has sanitized a total of 10,000 schools across the country as part of the precautionary steps to curb the spread of COVID-19, the state TV reported Wednesday.
The report said that a total of 42 centers have been prepared for emergency use in case more coronavirus cases are confirmed in the country.
So far, two out of the ten coronavirus cases died in Syria.
The Syrian government has ordered a partial curfew across the country as a measure to contain the spread of the virus. Schools and universities were also suspended.