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COVID-19: Russia Closes Borders; Serbia Plans $5.5 Billion Aid Package

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A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past a warning sign made of balloons outside a closed cafe in Moscow on March 30.

The global death toll has surpassed 34,000 with over 725,000 infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Russia

Russia is considering extending a nationwide lockdown after Moscow all but confined its 12 million residents to their homes and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church called on worshipers to avoid churches and pray at home instead to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked regional governors during an emergency meeting on March 30 to mirror Moscow's move and consider introducing a partial lockdown in their areas, after Russia recorded its biggest one-day rise in coronavirus cases for a sixth day running.

The government also closed all of the country's borders as of March 30, allowing only Russian diplomats, freight, and other necessary vehicles and people to enter.

"This may now seem to some of you like some kind of game, a kind of Hollywood thriller. This is no game...," Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, said in a video address on March 30.

"Unfortunately, what is happening now is a real threat to all of us and to all of human civilization," he said.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia has exceeded 1,800, according to a global database maintained by Johns Hopkins University on March 30, with nine fatalities.

Russian officials initially touted quick measures taken, such at strict quarantines for people entering the country and the closure of its border with China, as having blunted a rapid outbreak of the virus.

Indeed, the country appears so far to be less affected than many European countries, but critics and even ordinary Russians have voiced skepticism about the accuracy of official figures and raised questions about the state's testing for the virus.

According to a survey by the Levada Center, only 16 percent of Russians fully trust official information about the coronavirus, while 24 percent said they did not trust it at all.

In a sign of public indifference to the situation, Moscow authorities issued rules on March 30 that state residents will only be allowed to go out to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk their dogs, or take out the trash. Those needing to go to work will also be allowed to leave their homes, and authorities will introduce a system of passes in the coming days.

Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on March 30 that city control measures had revealed that some 20 percent of Moscow residents had failed to follow previous quarantine regulations, requiring the tighter restrictions.

According to Sobyanin, a special information system will be developed soon to increase control over the movement of the Russian capital's residents.

"It will enable us to practically fully control citizens' movements and prevent violations that may occur," Sobyanin said.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 30 hailed Moscow's lockdown as "necessary and justified."

St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, and more than a dozen other regions from the westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to the Arctic region of Murmansk and Tatarstan on the Volga River have followed Moscow's example and introduced compulsory self-isolation regimes.

Russia's coronavirus crisis center said on March 30 that the latest fatality from the coronavirus was confirmmed in the western region of Pskov. According to the center, the coronavirus cases were registered in 71 of the country's regions.

The virus has also touched the country's power center.

The Kremlin said that a member of President Vladimir Putin's administration has been infected with the coronavirus, but the person had not been in direct contact with Russia's leader.

Putin also called for the week between March 28 to April 5 to be a non-working week -- essentially a weeklong holiday for the country to "prevent the threat of the quick spread of the illness."

The government also ordered all vacation and health resorts closed until June.

Other restrictions ordered by the government included the cancelation of all international flights.

Iran

Iran's death toll from the coronavirus has reached 2,757 with 117 new fatalities over the past 24 hours, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV on March 30, adding that the official number of confirmed cases has climbed to 41,495.

"In the past 24 hours, we had 117 new deaths and 3,186 new confirmed cases of people infected with the coronavirus," Jahanpur said, calling on Iranians to stay at home.

Iran is one of the countries worst hit by the virus, and experts have been skeptical about the veracity of official figures released by the Islamic regime that keeps a tight lid on local and foreign media.

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State media reported on March 30 that inmates in southern Iran broke cameras and caused other damage during a riot, the latest in a series of violent prison disturbances in the country.

Enayatollah Rahimi, the governor of the southern Fars Province, was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as saying a riot broke out at Adel Abad Prison in the city of Shiraz. Rahimi said no one was wounded and no one escaped.

Iran had temporarily released around 100,000 prisoners as part of measures taken to contain the pandemic, leaving an estimated 50,000 people behind bars, including violent offenders and what authorities call "security cases" -- often people with dual citizenship and Western ties.

On March 29, the government announced the extension of the temporary releases of thousands of prisoners, after several prison riots in recent days and mass escapes from prisons.

Serbia

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic says his government plans to give about 5 billion euros ($5.54 billion) in loans and subsidies to businesses to help them deal with the economic pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government will also make a one-off payment of 100 euros ($111) to every Serbian citizen older than 18, or around 5 million people, Vucic said on March 29.

So far, 13 people in Serbia, a Balkan country of 7 million, have died from the coronavirus and 741 have been infected.

Serbia has introduced a state of emergency and an overnight lockdown for all.

Vucic said the economic plan would prompt an increase in the deficit this year that would be covered from financial reserves and borrowing. The deficit was originally forecast at 0.3 percent of economic output.

Under the plan, agreed with the International Monetary Fund, Serbia's public debt should not exceed 60 percent of GDP, from 52.4 percent at the end of last year, Vucic said.

Serbia last month had 13.4 billion euros ($14.9 billion) in currency reserves, down from 13.7 billion euros ($15.2 billion) in January.

Vucic said the state would use 700 million euros ($780 million) to pay minimum wages of 30,367 dinars ($288.58) and allow tax delays for micro and small enterprises for the three months after the end of the state of emergency to avoid job losses.

Romania

Romania has reported six more coronavirus deaths, bringing the total inside the country to 46, as the number of confirmed infections reached 1,952, with 192 more cases registered over the past 24 hours.

A total of 16 Romanians have died from the coronavirus abroad, most of of them in Italy. An estimated 4 million Romanians work in Italy and Spain, two of the world's worst-affected countries.

Romania's government crisis group dealing with the pandemic also said 180 people had recovered from the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.

As of March 30, a total of 23,103 Romanians have been tested for COVID-19.

Romania, a country of 19.5 million, has been under a state of emergency since March 16. On March 22, authorities imposed a "total quarantine," stepping up restrictions.

Armenia

Armenia's parliament has passed in the first reading a government-drafted bill allowing the remote monitoring of coronavirus patients placed in self-isolation, a move that has been criticized by the opposition as a violation of privacy.

Armenia has been under a one-month state of emergency since March 16.

The 132-member National Assembly dominated by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's My Step alliance on March 30 voted 57-24 to approve the bill. There was one abstention.

The text is expected to pass in its second and last reading with minor changes on March 31.

The Ministry of Health said the number of coronavirus cases in Armenia had increased by 58 over the past 24 hours, raising the total figure to 482.

Three people are reported to have died of the disease in the South Caucasus country of around 3 million.

Under the bill, the authorities will be allowed to use telecommunication technologies to monitor the location of coronavirus patients placed in mandatory self-isolation.

The patients' phone records and other personal data could also be used to identify their possible contacts.

Justice Minister Rustam Badasian, who presented the bill in parliament, said the measure would apply only to periods of national emergencies caused by epidemics and would not include snooping into telephone conversations.

The measure would help authorities enforce the self-isolation regime for coronavirus patients, including through a smartphone application, and help locate their contacts with the use of personal data provided by telecom companies, according to Badasian.

The minister said that metadata for all customers would be made available in one database, but authorities would focus only on confirmed coronavirus patients and their contacts.

Opposition factions that voted against the bill said the measure was a threat to the protection of personal data. "We are against yielding our freedom and we will vote against it," Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia faction, said before the vote.

Naira Zohrabian, a representative of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, described the proposed measure as a waste of money.

"Use the tremendous resources that you are going to waste on trying to [geo]locate us on purchasing [coronavirus] testing kits in order to test people entering the country," she said before the vote.

According to legal amendments passed on March 23, violators of self-isolation orders can face fines of up to $2,000. Up to five years' imprisonment is envisaged for cases where a breach of quarantine or self-isolation leads to fatal infections of other individuals.

Georgia

The Georgian government has decided to impose a night curfew, as part of new quarantine rules aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus in the South Caucasus country.

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced the new measures at a news conference on March 30, saying that "the dynamics of the growth in new cases [of coronavirus] is alarming."

The country of some 3.7 million people has so far reported 100 cases, with no fatalities.

Gakharia said that starting on March 31, a curfew will be imposed nationwide from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., during which pharmacies will be the only shops allowed to open.

The government is also declaring a "general quarantine," during which people will only be permitted to leave homes for essential shopping.

Other new measures include a ban on public gatherings of more than three people and a suspension of public transport, except for taxis, the prime minister said.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has suspended operations of all airports in Central Asia’s most-populous nation of 32 million to try to help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that all airports were to cease operations on March 30 and remain closed until April 20.

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A special government commission had already restricted all vehicle traffic between Uzbekistan's towns and cities to those with a special permit. The restriction runs for the same period as the airport closure.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Uzbekistan reached 145 as of March 30, including two deaths, according to local health officials.

Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, the Interior Ministry said on March 30 that police detained 1,087 individuals across the country for violating a curfew that was introduced five days earlier over the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the curfew, the movement of individuals or vehicles is banned between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. each day.

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov said on March 30 that the total number of registered coronavirus cases in the country had reached 94 after 10 more people tested positive in the southern Jalal-Abad region.

Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, more than 70 women rallied in the southern city of Shymkent to demand the distribution of free food promised by the local government last week as part of the assistance being given to low-income families amid the outbreak restrictions.

A representative of the Shymkent city administration, Sundet Seitov, told RFE/RL that city authorities have been unable to provide all of the food assistance due to financial shortages.

Last week, a similar rally took place in another southern city, Qyzylorda, where more than 100 people rallied in front of the city food depot demanding food distribution.

The Health Ministry said that as of March 30, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan was 294, including one death.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Romanian, Russian, Tatar-Bashkir, and Uzbek services, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, AFP, Digi24.ro, Hotnews.ro, and Prva TV
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