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COVID-19: Olympics Postponed As Iran Rejects Medical Charity Mission

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a Tokyo 2020 kickoff rally in Tokyo in August 2013.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach have agreed to put off the Tokyo 2020 games for one year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move, unprecedented in peacetime, was requested "taking into consideration the current circumstances," Abe said, noting that all parties want a secure and safe environment for the athletes and crowds.

The Olympics, which have been held every four years since 1948, is to date the highest-profile event affected by the virus, which has killed more nearly 19,000 and infected over 422,000 people, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try and slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

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

Iran

Iran, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the coronavirus, has rejected an offer from a Geneva-based medical charity to set up a 50-bed inflatable hospital in the central city of Isfahan to deal with the epidemic.

The total number of people diagnosed with the disease increased by 1,762 during the previous 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on March 24, raising the total figure to 24,811.

The ministry also announced 122 new deaths from the virus, putting the official toll at 1,934.

"We are surprised to learn that the deployment of our treatment unit is canceled," Michel-Olivier Lacharite, who is in charge of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) crisis-response team, said in a statement on March 24.

Lacharite said the organization had been ready to set up the unit at the end of the week after being given prior approval from the authorities.

Alireza Vahabzadeh, adviser to Iran's health minister, tweeted that "it is not necessary for now for hospital beds to be set up by foreign forces, and their presence is ruled out."

Vahabzadeh cited Iran's "national mobilization against the virus and the full use of the medical capacity of the armed forces" as the reasons for the refusal.

On March 22, MSF said it was sending a 50-bed inflatable hospital and an emergency team to Isfahan to treat patients critically ill with COVID-19.

An MSF team comprised of nine emergency and intensive-care unit doctors and logisticians was to run the unit to be set up in the compound of the city’s Amin hospital, the organization said.

The announcement stirred opposition from Iranian hard-liners, who alleged that MSF staff would serve as "spies."

Iranian officials have previously rejected the United States' offer of humanitarian assistance, saying that Washington should lift sanctions if it wants to help Tehran fight the epidemic.

Iran has been under crippling U.S. sanctions in connection with its nuclear and missile program.

On March 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran to be "urgently reevaluated" to avoid pushing strained medical systems into collapse.

"At this crucial time, both for global public-health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended," Bachelet said.

More than 50 Iranian medics have died since the first coronavirus case was detected in the country five weeks ago, according to her office.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani on March 24 announced that about half of all government employees were staying at home in a bid to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

Rohani also said the temporary release of prisoners will be extended until the end of the current Iranian month of Farvardin, about April 18.

Iranian authorities say they have temporarily released tens of thousands of prisoners because of the epidemic.

Russia

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has warned President Vladimir Putin that the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Russia is likely to rise sharply in the days ahead as health officials dramatically increase the number of tests they are carrying out.

Sobyanin, who heads a coronavirus task force at Russia's State Council, told Putin on March 24 that the number of tests performed in Moscow will increase from about 3,000 a day to 13,000 per day by the end of this week.

"The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture" of the situation in Russia and the world, Sobyanin told Putin.

"The picture that is unfolding is serious," he said, warning that the number of infected people in Russia was "significantly" higher than official figures.

Russia has registered 495 cases of the coronavirus and maintains that there have not been any deaths from the disease in the country.

One patient with coronavirus died in a Russian hospital, but the authorities are not counting the woman's death as part of its coronavirus toll -- saying she died from a blood clot.

However, a global database maintained by Johns Hopkins University is including that patient in its coronavirus death toll.

Some experts say Russia's relatively low number of confirmed coronavirus infections could be attributed to its slow pace of screening.

Until recently, just one lab in Novosibirsk was analyzing tests from all over Russia.

Russia is now taking steps to open new labs and increase the number of tests being carried out for coronavirus.

Putin, meanwhile, visited a Moscow hospital for coronavirus patients on March 24 -- donning a yellow hazmat suit with a protective mask within an area where patients were being treated.

During his visit to a hospital in the Moscow suburb of Kommunarka, Putin praised doctors for their efforts in treating infected patients, saying they were working "like clockwork, a well-oiled machine."

"I could see how well the seriously ill patients are being cared for with three specialists working on one patient at once," Putin said in comments published on the Kremlin website.

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Armenia

Armenia has ordered nearly all people in the country to remain at home except to buy food, receive medical care, or to exercise, with only "vitally" necessary workers allowed to go to their jobs as the government steps up measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision announced on March 24 by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian came hours after a government task force ordered a partial closure of virtually all state agencies, allowing only a limited number of employees to show up for work.

Armenia, a South Caucasus country of just under 3 million people, has reported 249 coronavirus cases, a rise of 14 over the past 24 hours.

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Pashinian said in a nationally televised address that one of the persons infected, a 77-year-old man, was in "extremely grave" condition and that four others were in "grave" condition.

The prime minister added that 868 Armenians remained in quarantine and more than 2,400 others were in self-isolation.

At least 37 people were released from a two-week quarantine on March 24 after testing negative for the virus.

In his address, Pashinian said that the lockdown "means the work of thousands of enterprises will be halted and only vitally necessary entities will be allowed to operate."

He said the measures would be in effect "for at least a week."

"Our fellow citizens taking to the streets will have to clearly explain where they are going and those explanations must fit into the logic of people's vital movements," Pashinian warned.

He said that only people over the age of 65 would be allowed to go shopping between 10 a.m. and noon each day.

As part of the measures, the government earlier ordered the temporary closure of all cafes and restaurants as well as most businesses in the country.

Pashinian urged Armenians to, if possible, use online services provided by state and private entities.

He also stressed that food stores, pharmacies, and bank offices will remain open and that no restrictions will be placed on agricultural work.

"We are overcoming coronavirus step by step...rest assured that we will defeat this evil," Pashinian said.

The government on March 16 declared a one-month state of emergency to slow the spread of the disease.

It had previously closed its border with Iran -- one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the virus -- and Georgia.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Kyrgyzstan has imposed a state of emergency in the capital and several other cities and regions to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the country's presidential service announced on March 24.

"President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has signed decrees to enact a state of emergency in the cities of Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad, as well as the Nookat and Kara-Suu districts of the Osh region and the Suzak district of the Jalal-Abad region. The decrees have been sent to parliament," it said.

The decrees were immediately sent to parliament, which unanimously approved them in an emergency session.

Kyrgyzstan's Security Council first recommended the state of emergency on March 22, and the government subsequently imposed some restrictions and took some measures such as placing checkpoints in every region and city.

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In the southern district of Nookat, regional officials already declared a local state of emergency on March 21 after three coronavirus cases were reported there.

Under the state of emergency which, after parliament's approval, will come into force on March 25 and will last until April 15, a curfew will be enacted and measures to maintain public order and security at strategic facilities will be stepped up, the statement said.

The decree bans artistic, sports, and other mass events as well as strikes, rallies, meetings, street marches, demonstrations, and pickets.

In line with the presidential decree declaring a state of emergency, the government said all internal flights will be suspended in Kyrgyzstan from March 25.

Exceptions will be made for special flights upon agreement with the country's headquarters for coronavirus actions, according to Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov.

Kyrgyzstan's Health Ministry reported 26 more confirmed cases on March 23, bringing the total number to 42.

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Tajikistan, which has not reported any coronavirus cases so far, decided to close its border with Kyrgyzstan starting on March 24 "until the situation stabilizes," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The decision does not apply to Tajik citizens returning to their home country, foreigners departing from Tajikistan, drivers of goods vehicles, diplomats and their families, and members of government delegations.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the capital, Tashkent, went into lockdown on March 24 to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Uzbekistan has 50 confirmed coronavirus cases, all but one in Tashkent, a city of more than 2.5 million.

Uzbekistan closed its borders on March 23 and has already shut down public transit in the capital and ordered most businesses to switch to remote working.

Pakistan

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the media in Pakistan should temporarily close their bureaus to lower health risks after three TV journalists working in the field tested positive for the coronavirus.

"You cannot rule out the possibility that the three journalists who have tested positive for COVID-19 caught it while reporting in the field," Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement on March 23, a day after it emerged that two journalists with News 24 HD TV and one with AbbTakk TV had tested positive.

The journalists are based in Lahore, the capital of the eastern province of Punjab.

"We ask all of the country's media executives and owners to put their reporters' health first and not send large numbers of them into the field," Bastard said. "Everything must be put in place so that they can work from home and avoid any potential source of infection."

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan has passed 950, with seven deaths.

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Romania

President Klaus Iohannis has said that Romania will deploy the military to help impose a "total quarantine" to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak amid a spike in the number of confirmed cases.

Romania declared a state of emergency on March 16, but the number of cases has continued to rise sharply as many people have been ignoring the government's recommendations to remain indoors.

On March 24, authorities reported 186 more infections -- the highest day-to-day increase so far -- and one more death, bringing the total to 762 confirmed cases and eight fatalities.

Iohannis said in a live televised address that starting from March 25, people will only be allowed to leave home to buy food or medicine, to go to work, or for emergencies. Those over 65 will be completely banned from leaving their homes.

Those who have been placed in self-quarantine will be monitored electronically, Iohannis said. He did not elaborate.

Iohannis said previous recommendations will become mandatory and the army will be deployed to help police the streets.

"The restrictions, dear Romanians, will come into force from tomorrow," Iohannis said.

Moldova

Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu has imposed further freedom-of-movement restrictions, banning people from visiting parks and other recreation sites in an effort to stem the spread ofthe coronavirus.

"Starting from March 24, city residents are prohibited from visiting parks and other public zones where people gather. This measure is tough, but is necessary for containing the coronavirus. The Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry will be responsible for enforcing these measures," Chicu told a session of the emergency situations commission late on March 23.

Additional measures include shutting down public transportation, outdoor food markets, mail delivery, and the closing of all commercial shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies.

Residents were instructed to stay at home and can only leave for work or to shop for food.

Moldova reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on March 23, bringing the total number of infections to 109.

A national emergency is in place until May 15.

Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal says there is no need yet to declare a national state of emergency even as a leading health official announced 10 more cases of coronavirus.

"At the moment, there is no need to introduce a state of emergency in Ukraine. A state of emergency is introduced when there are extreme events. Today, the development of the coronavirus in Ukraine is quite moderate compared to many European countries," Shmyhal told local television late on March 23.

He added that measures the government is currently taking are ample for the time being, though the situation may change in the coming weeks due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Chief Medical Officer Viktor Lyashko said on March 23 that preliminary tests showed 10 more people have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Confirmation of their tests is expected on March 24 and could raise the number of confirmed cases to 83. Three deaths have been recorded linked to the virus.

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 72,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad, including from some of the hardest-hit European countries, since a nationwide quarantine was imposed from March 12 to April 3.

Among those diagnosed with the coronavirus are several members of parliament, including Ruslan Horbenko, a member of the ruling party.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged the heads of church confessions to conduct prayer services online and without the presence of people at places of worship.

"I thank those church leaders who understand the danger and conduct divine service online, without people. I am sure other leaders will join these forced measures. After all, today people really need faith, but they equally need basic security," he said.

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Since March 17, all aviation, rail, and bus services with foreign countries and within the country have been shut down. Shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, gyms, and other nonessential facilities have been shuttered. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks are still open.

The previous day, Kyiv further closed public transportation, allowing only critical personnel to take buses, trolleybuses, and trams. Subway systems were closed in Kyiv, Odesa, and Dnipro on March 17.

Several cities, including Kyiv, have declared states of emergency.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian, Kyrgyz, Moldovan, Romanian, Tajik, Ukrainian, and Uzbek services, Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, IRNA, TASS, Interfax, Digi24.ro, G4media.ro, and Hotnews.ro
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