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Corona virus in Middle East is at ‘critical threshold’: WHO

Middle East is at a 'critical threshold' as total cases of coronavirus cross the 1 million mark in the region. Over 80 percent of all deaths in the region were reported in five countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, according to the WHO.

The World Health Organization warned Wednesday the Middle East faces a “critical threshold” amid a relaxation of coronavirus measures, following a surge in cases in the region. Lockdowns may have been lifted and restrictions eased, but this does not directly equate to coronavirus cases going down, rates of transmission decreasing and lower chances of getting infected.

Coronavirus spread in the Middle East 

Middle Eastern governments must act quickly to limit the spread of the coronavirus as cases in the region have risen to nearly 60,000 – almost double the tally of a week earlier, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned.

Read more: Coronavirus case overload sends countries into a tailspin

“New cases have been reported in some of the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems,” Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO’s director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as MENA countries, said on Thursday.

At a critical threshold

“We are at a critical threshold in our region,” the WHO’s Middle East head, Ahmed al-Mandhari, said in an online press conference.

The global health body confirmed on Sunday there were more than one million cases of the COVID-19 disease across the 22 countries that the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region covers, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.

Read more: Pakistan’s positivity rate of the COVID-19 is 22%, WHO

Over 80 percent of all deaths in the region were reported in five countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, according to the WHO.

Mandhari said it was a “concerning milestone”.

“The number of cases reported in June alone is higher than the total number of cases reported during the four months following the first reported case in the Region on 29 January,” he said.

He attributed the rise in cases to increased testing, but also to the lifting in recent weeks of restrictions put in place to combat the virus’ spread. After the easing of lock-down restrictions, the general populace has resumed life as if a virus was never on the loose. With many questioning the authenticity of the virus and believing it to be a work of fiction, confirmed cases are on the rise, and the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

Increased transmission in Middle East: total cases cross the 1 million mark

“Even in countries with stronger health systems, we have seen a worrying spike in the numbers of cases and deaths reported,” al-Mandhari said in a statement.

Outside of Iran, which has reported more than 50,000 cases, coronavirus numbers have been relatively low in the Middle East and North Africa compared to Europe, the United States and Asia.

But health officials fear cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness, COVID-19, are under-reported. They say many countries with weak governments and health systems eroded by conflict will struggle to cope.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation,” said al-Mandhari. “The increasing numbers of cases show that transmission is rapidly occurring at local and community levels.

Read more: Middle East problems amplified by coronavirus

“We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day.”

The total number of cases in the region has risen to 58,168 from 32,442 on March 26, the WHO said, on a day when global COVID-19 cases crossed the one million mark. To date, 1,016,534 people have been infected globally, with 53,179 deaths.

Urgency of action needed

He urged individuals to be “cautious and vigilant” as lockdowns and curfews were eased, and to follow protocols recommended by health authorities – wearing a face mask when going out in public, social distancing from people, and to quarantine if any symptoms occur.

“Easing of lockdowns does not mean easing of the response or easing of social responsibilities,” he said, adding that there was a risk that the number of cases will rise as public spaces reopen “even in countries where the situation now seems to be stabilizing”.

Read more: WHO warns of worsening global crisis as world emerges from lockdown

He called for global solidarity in the face of the pandemic, urging countries to “strengthen” their healthcare systems.

Other WHO officials who participated in the meeting said Middle East governments needed to exert more efforts in preparing intensive care unit (ICU) beds and emergency wards.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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