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COVID-19: Kazakhstan Locks Down Two Main Cities; Iran Warns Virus Could Kill 'Millions'

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Ukrainians ride public transport in Kyiv, where the government closed the subway on March 17.

Kazakh authorities have imposed a quarantine on the capital, Nur-Sultan, and largest city, Almaty, after the number of people infected with coronavirus in the country more than doubled overnight to 33.

The Health Ministry said in three different announcements on March 17 that 18 people had been diagnosed with the deadly virus in Nur-Sultan and 15 in Almaty.

After the announcement, Prime Minister Asqar Mamin held a gathering of the presidential commission on the implementation of the state emergency -- which runs until April 15 -- introduced by Presidnet Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev the day before

It was decided at the gathering to impose the quarantine at midnight on March 19 to prevent the further spread of the deadly virus.

The measures include dividing the two cities into sectors and creating checkpoints to control access, limiting the population's movement by foot and by vehicles in the two cities, regulating the operations of medical institutions in which patients infected or suspected of coming into contact with the coronavirus are being treated.

Also, all stores and shopping malls in the two major cities will be closed and only grocery and drug stores will be allowed to operate during the quarantine.

According to the website, special points to distribute food, medicine, and other items will be defined in Nur-Sultan and Almaty.

Last week, Toqaev canceled Norouz holiday celebrations scheduled for March 21-23 and a military parade devoted to the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany scheduled for May 9, due to the coronavirus.

Interactive Coronavirus Map: The Spread Of The Infection

Iran

Iran's state television has warned, with the official coronavirus death toll at nearly 1,000 people, that the outbreak could kill "millions" in the Islamic republic if the public kept ignoring health measures.

The warning was broadcast at midday on March 17, after the Health Ministry said 135 more people had died over the past day, a 13 percent spike that pushed the death toll to 988.

Iran has the third-most registered cases after China and Italy.

"Reports by more than 56 laboratories indicated that we have had 1,178 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in the past 24 hours," Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said.

"This brings the total number of confirmed cases to 16,169 as of today noon," he added.

The rise in deaths came amid the temporary release of some 85,000 inmates earlier on March 17 -- a measure that authorities said was meant to help curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

The husband of the jailed British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe said his wife was among those temporarily released.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran since April 3, 2016. In September 2016 she was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly "plotting to topple the Iranian government."

The prosecutor-general of Tehran said in October 2017 that she was being held for running "a BBC Persian online journalism course that was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran."

The charges have been rejected by Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the BBC, and international rights groups as politically motivated.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili confirmed that those who were temporarily freed on March 17 included political prisoners, which Iranian authorities describe as "security-related prisoners."

"Some 50 percent of those released are security-related prisoners.... Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak," Esmaili said, giving no further details.

There are suspicions that the outbreak in the Islamic republic -- whose government is known for its opaqueness and censorship -- is far worse than authorities are admitting.

President Hassan Rohani on March 16 urged Iranians to stay home for the Norouz holiday celebrations on March 20 and to avoid traveling over the festive period, while state TV announced the temporary closure of Shi'ite shrines to limit exposure to the corunavirus.

The announcement prompted angry crowds of hard-line Shi'ite faithful to storm into the courtyards of two major shrines -- Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine -- late on March 16.

Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That's worried health officials, who for weeks have ordered Iran's Shi'ite clergy to close them.

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Pakistan

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan has more than doubled for a second straight day, reaching 195 -- mainly due to what authorities said were mistakes in testing and the quarantine of travelers who recently returned from Iran.

Thousands of Pakistanis, mostly pilgrims, have been placed into quarantine in recent weeks at the Taftan border crossing in the southwestern province of Balochistan after returning from Iran, one of the world's worst-affected countries.

However, at least 119 of those people who were released have since tested positive after entering other regions of the country, officials said.

The chief minister of Balochistan said the area had housed some 5,000 people who had reentered Pakistan in recent weeks.

Amid the steep rise in known cases, Pakistani authorities have moved to discourage crowds and gatherings.

Islamabad on March 17 announced that all gyms, swimming pools, religious shrines, and children's parks will remain closed for three weeks.

Health officials in Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, on March 17 urged the public to avoid unnecessary social contacts or traveling and to stay indoors.

Pakistan also postponed its Super League cricket tournament.

Serbia

Serbia has declared a nighttime curfew and ordered that all elderly people remain at home as the Balkan country steps up measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

President Aleksandar Vucic on March 17 said the new, stricter regulations were necessary because many people had not followed earlier, less-restrictive recommendations in the country of some 7 million people.

Serbia has 72 confirmed infections of the coronavirus, which has affected every country in Europe as well as most countries worldwide since the outbreak began in China.

Under the new measures, people will not be able to move about in the evening hours as of March 18, Vucic said.

"There is a ban on the movement of all persons of any age from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. No one can be on the street, except the appropriate authorities who are on duty and those employed to work on the third shift," the president said.

He added that as of 10 a.m. on March 18, "it is absolutely forbidden for people over 65 to move about in urban areas and for those over 70 to go out in smaller towns and rural regions."

Most people who contract the highly contagious virus suffer only light to moderate effects, but it has proven to be fatal to many older people and those with underlying medical conditions.

Vucic said the penalties for those who do not respect the measures "will be very, very harsh."

Public transport will be suspended, except for special buses designated for workers in essential industries, the president said.

Vucic added that all border crossings, migrant centers, and hospitals will be under the control of Serbia’s military.

"Several doctors have been assaulted during this crisis. Medical staff will feel much safer with armed soldiers outside," Vucic said.

Serbia had already delayed general elections scheduled for April 26 until after the abolishment of a state of emergency previously imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

It also closed its borders to most foreigners and imposed quarantines on Serbian citizens returning from abroad.

Ukraine

KYIV -- Ukraine's government has suspended the operation of subways in three major cities, Kyiv -- the capital, and the eastern cities of Dnipro and Kharkiv -- as a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Transport officials in Kyiv said on March 17 that the underground transportation operations will be stopped later in the day, but did not give an exact time.

Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes said that subway operations in the city will be suspended as of 8 p.m. on that day until April 3.

In Dnipro, an official with the Transportation Department at the city council said that all public transportation units are working and that any changes in operations will be announced later.

The government announced on March 16 that subway operations would be suspended as of March 17, while all rail, air, and bus transportation between towns and cities, as well as interregional passenger links will be stopped on March 18.

To date, 14 coronavirus cases have been registered in Ukraine, up from seven the previous day. Two deaths have been reported.

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Armenia

Armenia has banned all public events involving more than two dozen people after the number of coronavirus cases nearly doubled in a day, pushing authorities to declare a national emergency.

Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian, who was appointed chief coordinator of the 30-day state of emergency, said the temporary measure applies to concerts, exhibitions, theatrical performances, sports as well as cultural, educational, and entertainment events.

The government has also placed a temporary limit of 20 people for private events, including, but not limited to, birthday, wedding and engagement parties, memorial services and funerals.

"As regards funerals and memorial services, we will try to provide a slightly wider opportunity for participation while keeping an eye out for crowding during ceremonies," Avinian said.

Under the state-of-emergency decree, Armenia has also prohibited entry to foreigners coming from countries most hit by the new coronavirus.

The strict measures come after Armenia's Health Ministry reported an additional 22 cases on March 16, bringing the total number of patients in the country to 52.

In a live broadcast, Health Minister Arsen Torosian said that a vast majority of patients identified in Armenia do not even have noticeable symptoms.

He said some of the new patients had only been tested because they had been in close contact with infected people.

“Only two of the patients have developed pneumonia, but they have it in a mild form,” the minister said.

Following the declaration of a state of emergency in Armenia, the Armenian Apostolic Church said it would conduct all liturgies behind closed doors, but will schedule regular open hours for believers to make individual visits.

The church also announced it would suspend marriage ceremonies and limit its services during funerals to graveyard ceremonies.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian also called on people to take basic protective measures to reduce the risk of contracting the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

He also assured the public that Armenia has no shortage of food supply and urged people not to buy more than they needed.

Romania

Some 6,000 Romanians have been blocked at the border between Austria and Hungary after Budapest closed its border crossings to slow the spread of coronavirus, Romania's government says.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government imposed the sweeping restrictions just after at midnight on March 17, closing land crossings to foreigners as well as border crossings at airports.

Most of the delayed Romanians are returning from Italy and Spain, the world's second- and fourth-most affected countries.

There was a 20-kilometer-long traffic jam at the Nickelsdorf-Hegyeshalom border crossing on the Austrian side on March 17, with cars and trucks waiting to enter Hungary.

Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said that some 6,000 Romanians -- including young children and elderly people -- had been prevented from crossing into Hungary since midnight.

Aurescu asked Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto for Budapest to take urgent measures to allow the Romanian citizens to pass through Hungary, his ministry said in a statement.

Aurescu "called for support for the opening of a humanitarian corridor to allow the uninterrupted access through Hungary for all Romanian citizens currently waiting at the Austrian border with Hungary," the ministry said.

It said the blockage was caused by the lack of prior official notice from Hungary about its intention to close the borders.

The statement from Bucharest quoted Szijjarto as saying that Hungary would allow, "as an exceptional, onetime measure," the repatriation of Romanian citizens as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Szijjarto confirmed on Facebook that Hungary will permit the one-off transit of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens who are stuck in Austria.

Szijjarto said the step was being taken at the request of the Bulgarian and Romanian foreign ministers. He said they will have to take a designated transit route.

"We expect Austrian authorities to maintain order on the Austrian side of the border and allow Hungarian citizens and freight traffic to use the border crossing," Szijjarto said.

Hungary reported having 50 confirmed coronavirus infections on March 17, up from 39 on March 16.

Moldova

Moldova has declared a 60-day state of emergency in a bid to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

Lawmakers on March 17 voted unanimously in favor of the measure presented to parliament by Prime Minister Ion Chicu.

Moldova, a country of 3.5 million sandwiched between EU member Romania and Ukraine, has reported 29 confirmed coronavirus cases, with no deaths recorded.

The country, one of the poorest in Europe, has already temporarily shut its borders and suspended all international flights from March 17.

Separately, Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester declared a state of emergency until April 5 in the wake of the outbreak.

Transdniester declared independence in 1990 and fought a bloody war with Moldova two years later. It is unrecognized by the international community but is unofficially backed by Russia, which stations hundreds of troops in the region.

Montenegro

Montenegro’s government has confirmed the first two cases of the coronavirus in the Western Balkan country, becoming the final European country to report infections to the potentially deadly disease.

The government made the announcement in a brief Twitter statement late on March 17.

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic identified the patients as two females who had arrived from the United States and Spain 12 days ago.

Both have been hospitalized, he said.

Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic coast with around 620,000 people, had previously sealed its borders, halted public transport, and closed schools and restaurants in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Although the cases reported on March 17 were the first registered in the country, Montenegro has placed nearly 400 people in quarantine after they were potentially exposed to others with the virus.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia's main political parties have agreed to delay snap general elections scheduled for April 12 because of fears over the spread of the coronavirus.

Leaders from the parties met with President Stevo Pendarovski on March 17 to discuss the move. No new date for the vote was given.

"If the elections are postponed for a month or two, it will not be a collapse of the world," Pendarovski told a recent news conference.

The snap poll was called after former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev failed to get the go-ahead from the European Union to start accession talks in October 2019.

North Macedonia has confirmed 26 cases of the coronavirus, with no fatalities, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Uzbekistan

Uzbek authorities have warned against spreading "wrong" information to incite "panic" and fear among the public about the new coronavirus outbreak, saying offenders could face heavy fines and up to eight years in prison.

The country’s Justice Ministry said that, according to Uzbek laws, those involved in preparing material with the intention of inciting panic among the public -- and those saving such material for the purpose of distribution -- will face up to $9,400 in fines or up to three years in prison.

Those who spread such information through media and the Internet would face up to eight years in prison, the ministry said on March 16.

The statement came a day after the Central Asian nation announced its first confirmed coronavirus infection, which prompted the government to introduce sweeping measures to contain the outbreak.

The country has closed its borders, suspended international flights, shuttered schools, and banned public gatherings.

The number of infections rose to 10 as of the morning of March 17, the Health Ministry said.

The Health Ministry provides regular updates on its social-media accounts on the coronavirus situation in the country, frequently using the hashtag “quarantine without panic” in the Uzbek and Russian languages.

It also posts measures that the government has been taking to contain the spread of the virus and to protect the population.

The ministry said some of the precautionary measures have led to "misinterpretations and false rumors" on social media.

For example, the ministry said the number of passengers on intercity trains and buses rose considerably as students began going home following the closure of universities on March 16.

“This situation was misinterpreted by some residents, and incorrect information circulated on social media that all transport links to and from Tashkent will be suspended soon, and that people who come from provinces will be forcibly sent back to their home regions,” the ministry said.

The ministry said that this was “entirely groundless information” and that flights and train and bus services between the capital and provinces will continue “uninterrupted.”

The coronavirus outbreak also led to panic buying and food price hikes in grocery shops and bazaars across the country, while there was an immediate shortage of face masks and hand sanitizers in pharmacies.

The state-backed food agency, Uzbek-oziq-ovqat-holding, sought to reassure people that there “won’t be food shortages in Uzbekistan” despite the temporary border closure.

The agency said 98 percent of the food products Uzbeks consume is produced domestically and that only nonstaples, “such as cocoa and coffee grains and citrus fruits," are imported from abroad.

The Health Ministry said on March 17 that more than 640 people who were believed to have been exposed to the virus had been placed in quarantine in hospitals, while some 5,660 others were under quarantine at home.

Uzbek authorities say that the 10 individuals who tested positive for the coronavirus are all Uzbek citizens returning from Europe and Turkey.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian, Kazakh, Romanian, Ukrainian, Uzbek services and Radio Mashaal, AP, dpa, IRNA, Reuters, UNIAN, Ukrayinska pravda, Nashe misto, Obozrevatel, Interfax, TASS, Hotnews.ro, Digi24.ro, and G4media.ro
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