WHO warns Middle East countries to act immediately to contain coronavirus

The World Health Organisation has warned governments in the Middle East to act quickly to curb the spread of coronavirus as cases in the region have risen to nearly 60,000 - almost double the tally of a week earlier.

Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO's director for the Eastern Mediterranean region said new cases have been reported in some of the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems. These include Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries.

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. However, health officials fear cases of the virus are under-reported.

"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.”

Fragile systems War and diseases combined are a recipe to create disaster throughout history, and as the coronavirus slowly begins to infiltrate the Middle East, the human and political consequences could be devastating.

Currently first world countries are struggling to cope and with significant economic activity and crucial transport routes shut down, there are already a number of challenges that the Middle East may not be able to handle if it does not prepare for this pandemic.

Refugees International says that at least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people live in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Borders throughout the Middle East are porous, with refugees, economic migrants, and others often travelling along informal routes.

The region's weak or broken public health systems are another challenge to an effective coronavirus response.

Yemen is thought to be particularly vulnerable. The war-torn state which has suffered a crippling blockade and famine over the past five years, does not possess the infrastructure to be able to deal with a wide-scale outbreak.

The World Bank said that it would provide $26.9 million in emergency funding to help the WHO and local authorities improve capacity for detecting, containing and treating the coronavirus. The region also has a large concentration of refugees who are particularly vulnerable to any large outbreak. This week the EU approved a $262 million aid package to support countries hosting Syrians refugees.

Where the virus originated China first informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) about cases of pneumonia with unknown causes on 31 December.

There were fears that the virus was a repeat of the 2003 Sars outbreak that killed 774 people. By 18 January the confirmed number of cases had risen to around 60 - but experts estimated the real figure was closer to 1,700.

To date, 1,016,534 people have been infected globally, with 53,179 deaths.

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