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COVID-19: Pakistan Quarantines 20,000 Worshippers; Iranian President Says 'Low-Risk Economic Activities' Will Resume

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Worshippers leave the religious gathering in Lahore on March 13.

The global death toll has passed 68,000 with over 1.25 million 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.

Pakistan

Pakistani officials say 20,000 worshippers have been quarantined and authorities are still searching for tens of thousands more who took part in a religious gathering in Lahore last month despite the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 100,000 people went to the meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat -- an Islamic missionary movement -- organizers said, despite calls by the government for the event to be canceled as the outbreak hit Pakistan.

Authorities said they want to test or quarantine those who attended the gathering between March 10-12 over fears they are now spreading the coronavirus across Pakistan and overseas. Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's Punjab Province, has a population of more than 11 million people.

About 7,000 people have been quarantined in Lahore, while in the southern Sindh Province up to 8,000 Tablighis, or Islamic preachers, have been quarantined, government officials said.

In the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, authorities have so far quarantined 5,300 Tablighis, who attended the Lahore meeting.

"Health officials are conducting tests for coronavirus and some of them have tested positive," Ajmal Wazir, a spokesperson for the regional government, said on April 5.

Wazir said thousands of Tablighis from his province were stranded in other regions because of the closure of major highways across the country.

The Tablighi mosques and the movement's other places of worship were closed or turned into quarantine centers at the end of last month.

Coronavirus has killed at least 45 people out of some 3,100 confirmed infections in Pakistan but, with only limited testing available, observers believe the number is far higher.

Numerous foreigners attended this year's Tablighi Jamaat congregation from countries including China, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, organizers said.

Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rohani announced on April 5 that "low-risk economic activities" would resume from April 11.

He told officials at a televised meeting that two-thirds of government employees will return to working from their offices on the same date. Rohani did not elaborate on what he meant by "low-risk activities."

Hours later, Iran's Health Ministry raised its official tally of COVID-19 cases so far to 58,226, with 3,603 deaths, although Iranian inefficiencies and secrecy frequently make official statistics unreliable.

Iranian officials also have publicly and vociferously complained that people were ignoring calls for them to stay home avoid travel during the Norouz, or New Year's, holidays that kicked off in late March.

Iranian authorities have been criticized for an initial slow response to the pandemic and failure to quarantine the city of Qom, where the coronavirus outbreak erupted in February.

Furthermore, experts have been skeptical about the veracity of official figures released by the Iranian authorities, who keep a tight lid on local and foreign media.

Serbia

Serbian soccer player Aleksandar Prijovic has been ordered by a Belgrade court to spend three months at home after he was arrested for violating the country's public-health restrictions to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The 29-year-old striker for the Saudi Arabian team Al Ittihad is the second Serbian player to breach the country's coronavirus measures after Real Madrid's Luka Jovic was caught violating a quarantine.

Under Serbia's state of emergency and increasingly strict measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, violators of the 5:00 p.m.-to-5:00 a.m. weekday curfew can face up to three years in jail. An even more stringent weekend curfew came into force from April 4 at 1 p.m. until April 6 at 5 a.m.

The normally bustling streets and parks of Serbia's capital, Belgrade, were deserted on April 5.

The Serbian government has also told residents to avoid picnics, leisure activities, and all forms of public gatherings in a bid to limit the outbreak.

Serbian Curfew Turns Belgrade Into A Ghost Town
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WATCH: Serbian Curfew Turns Belgrade Into A Ghost Town

National Police director Vladimir Rebic told Serbia's state-run RTS television that Prijovic was arrested on April 3 "along with several other people."

Reports later said 19 other people were arrested along with him at a hotel lobby bar in the capital.

Criminal charges were also pressed against Jovic on March 19 after he left his apartment in a Belgrade suburb, where he was ordered to stay in a mandatory 28-day long self-isolation after returning to the country from Spain.

Belarus

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Belarus has risen from 440 to 562, with eight coronavirus-associated deaths, the Health Ministry said on April 5.

"As of April 5, as many as 502 coronavirus patients are undergoing treatment at hospitals in Belarus. Fifty-two patients have recovered. Eight patients diagnosed with coronavirus and having numerous chronic diseases have died," the ministry said, adding that most of the patients have mild forms of the disease.

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Unlike its neighbors, Belarus has kept its borders open and has not imposed any restrictions of movement inside the country and critics say the actual number of cases could be much higher with official figures underreported.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country's authoritarian president, said on March 31, when the official number of reported cases was 152, that the country was at “the peak” of the pandemic.

"Looking at the figures of the illness, I feel we are now at the peak. I pray to God that that peak has passed by Easter [April 19]," Lukashenka said, after initially deriding global concerns over COVID-19 as “mass psychosis,” while playing ice hockey at a venue packed with spectators.

Romania

Romania's death toll from the coronavirus reached 151 on April 5 with five more fatalities during the previous 24 hours, the government crisis group said.

During the same period, 251 more people tested positive for the virus, bringing Romania's total number of infections to 3,864, the group said.

The northeastern city of Suceava has been under a lockdown since March 31, after the local hospital saw an explosion of infections among both patients and medical personnel due to mismanagement.

The hospital has been since placed under military supervision, but on April 5 doctors complained of their work being hampered by the drastic measures taken by the army personnel who treated them as if they were in "a military barracks," according to an unnamed doctor speaking to Digi 24 news television by phone.

Health Minister Nelu Tataru, who took over last week amid the crisis in Suceava, flew by helicopter to the hospital on April 5 to investigate the complaints. "We had lost control over the Suceava hospital, that's why we had to resort to military control," Tataru said.

Interior Minister Marcel Vela visited the Nadlac border crossing with Hungary, where thousands of Romanians returning from Western Europe had been crossing into the country despite repeated pledges by President Klaus Iohannis to refrain from returning for the Orthodox Easter.

Romania has been under a state of emergency since March 16.

Russia

In Russia, the coronavirus-response authority said 658 new infections had been registered and the total number of COVID-19 cases was now 5,389, signaling a 14 percent rise but still well below what many people say are more likely figures for the country of around 145 million, which shares the world's sixth-longest international border with China.

Medical experts inside Russia and abroad have accused the country of underreporting its infection figures even as President Vladimir Putin sends medical equipment abroad to help other afflicted countries.

Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of a doctors’ trade union that has criticized the Russian government’s response to the pandemic, was detained on April 3 during a trip she made to assess the preparedness of provincial hospitals and supply medical workers with masks and other safety equipment. She was released and fined in a case that Amnesty International called "staggering" amid the health crisis.

Russia has paused the evacuation of tens of thousands of its citizens stuck overseas due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many countries to ban international commercial flights in their battle to contain the spread of the disease.

Russia on April 4 canceled all flights to return citizens from abroad to prevent the import of the virus, local media reported. However, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said later that day that the government was only taking a pause to better plan their return.

She said the government would create a new timetable of flights for citizens by April 6, but gave no date for when all citizens seeking to return would be flown back.

Golikova said the temporary halt of flights was necessary “for a clear understanding" of who the citizens are, how many there are, and what their Russian destination is, she said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that there are more than 30,000 Russian citizens currently abroad while Golikova said about 26,000 are seeking to be evacuated.

However, she said the government has not been able to identify half of the citizens seeking to return.

Furthermore, she also said the government wants to fly as many people as possible directly to their home city because the nation's international airports don't have enough space to keep so many passengers under observation. All passengers will be asked to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days, she said.

About two-thirds of Russian citizens asking to be evacuated are based in Thailand, which recently announced onerous requirements for foreigners to legally extend their stay. Thailand is a popular destination for Russians, many of whom spend winters in the Southeast Asian country.

Russians seeking to return home are required to fill out an online form and wait for the government to give them a return flight date.

The government has given the Foreign Ministry 500 million rubles ($6.25 million) to help passengers stranded. The ministry will pay a daily allowance for the days citizens are stuck in other countries starting from the day of their originally booked return flight until the day of their evacuation.

The ministry will pay adults 2,400 rubles ($30) per day while children under 14 will receive 1,600 ($20).

Other coronavirus-related news in Russia:

  • Russia has launched what appears to be its first criminal probe into suspected public dissemination of false information about the new coronavirus just two days after President Vladimir Putin signed a new law on knowingly misinforming the public into the nation's criminal code.
  • A Russian man said he was detained while walking his dog in a Moscow park for violating the city’s coronavirus-induced quarantine.
  • One person was killed on April 5 in a fire that tore through workers' accommodation facilities at the construction site of a new hospital for coronavirus patients outside Moscow, officials say. The cause of the blaze was not immediately known but it reportedly broke out in a tent that contained a hot stove.
With reporting by AFP, dawn.com, TASS, Reuters, RTS, RFE/RL's Balkan Service, RFE/RL's Romanian Service, sigi24.ro, g4media.ro, and hotnews.ro
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