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COVID-19: Afghanistan Freeing Thousands Of Inmates; Romania Surpasses 1,000 Cases

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A patient suspected of having the coronavirus is brought to an infectious-diseases hospital in Kommunarka, Moscow, on March 25.

The global death toll from the coronavirus has reached nearly 24,000 with more than 526,000 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.

Afghanistan

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ordered the release of up to 10,000 prison inmates in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Ghani’s decree was directed at women, young offenders, critically ill patients, and prisoners aged more than 55, Attorney General Farid Hamidi told a Kabul news conference on March 26.

Calling the move a “responsible decision to safeguard the health of the people,” Hamidi said the decree “is not for those who have committed crimes against national and international security."

The announcement comes as Afghanistan's government is negotiating a prisoner exchange with Taliban as a confidence-building measure ahead of proposed peace talks under a U.S.-brokered process.

Afghanistan has recorded 90 confirmed coronavirus cases and two deaths, according to a tally on March 26 compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

However, the true figures are feared to be much higher as the war-torn country struggles to administer tests and screen an influx of Afghans returning from neighboring Iran -- one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

Ghani's decree calls for a special committee to be set up to prepare a list of prisoners to be released.

Prisons chief Ahmad Rashed Totakhail said between 9,000 and 10,000 inmates would be released during the coming 10 days.

An official in Ghani's office said “several thousand prisoners will be released soon.” He also insisted that those freed would not include members of the Taliban or the Islamic State militant group.

Ukraine

Ukraine has reported 40 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours as the government has implemented an additional measure to maintain physical distancing in public transport.

The Health Ministry’s Center for Public Health says there are 196 confirmed laboratory cases of the COVID-19 respiratory illness in the country as of 10 p.m. on March 26.

On the same day, the cabinet issued a nationwide directive limiting passengers in all public transportation. All above-ground transportation such as minibuses, buses, trolleybuses, and trams should only ride up to half capacity.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, meanwhile, in an online video address to the nation reiterated the country’s decision to shut cross-border travel after March 27, including for Ukrainian nationals.

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He also added that 100,000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests from South Korea for the coronavirus will be delivered on March 27.

On the same day, Zelenskiy said that "200,000 medical respirators, protective suits for doctors, 100,000 PCR tests, ventilators, [and] a large number of masks for pharmacies” will be delivered from China.

Romania

Romania surpassed 1,000 cases of the coronavirus on March 26, one month after the first confirmed infection there, prompting the resignation of the country's health minister.

Authorities on March 26 reported 123 more infections and four more deaths during the previous 24 hours, bringing the total in Romania to 1,029 confirmed cases with 18 deaths.

Health Minister Victor Costache resigned on March 26 amid criticism of the government's handling of the outbreak.

President Klaus Iohannis appointed a deputy minister, Nelu Tataru, to replace Costache.

Tataru has been one of the main public faces of the government's response to the crisis.

Costache on March 25 said all of Bucharest's population would be tested for COVID-19, a plan widely criticized as unfeasible and misguided.

Romania's hospitals have struggled to cope with an increasing number of patients.

Health workers say they do not have access to testing and adequate equipment with only about 16,000 people tested so far.

Out of 18 deaths, eight were patients at a hospital in the northeastern city of Suceava, a facility that has become the center of Romania's coronavirus outbreak.

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Eleven other Romanian coronavirus patients have died abroad -- eight in Italy, two in France, and one in Britain.

About 4 million Romanians work abroad, most of them in Italy and Spain, Europe's worst-affected countries.

Romania declared a state of emergency on March 16 and went into a "total quarantine" on March 25, with army troops deployed to help enforce the order.

Iohannis on March 26 reiterated his appeal to Romanians to obey the lockdown order and remain at home.

Russia

The Russian government has ordered the suspension of all regular and charter flights in and out of the country effective from March 27 as the country battles to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Russian officials on March 26 reported a total of 840 confirmed coronavirus infections in the country, up from 658 a day before, with 136 of the new cases in Moscow alone.

Russia's coronavirus task force also confirmed the country's first two deaths from COVID-19, describing the victims as elderly patients from the Moscow region who were suffering from pneumonia and complications.

On March 19, Moscow health authorities had reported the death of a 79-year-old woman as coronavirus-related, but hours later a new statement was released saying an autopsy had confirmed the woman had died of a blood clot and not from the virus.

"Regular and charter flights from Russian airports to and from foreign airports are to be suspended starting at midnight on March 27, 2020, with the exception of flights aimed at bringing Russian nationals back from overseas…and flights carried out in accordance with the government’s decisions,” the government said on its website.

Russia had already put restrictions in place regarding air transportation.

As of March 23, Russian airlines were only allowed to service foreign capitals or large cities like New York and only from Moscow airports.

The moves come as countries throughout the world are restricting entry and exit from their borders in attempts to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 25, President Vladimir Putin postponed next month's referendum on sweeping constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in power until 2036 because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

Putin said a new date for the April 22 vote would be determined based on the recommendations of health experts.

Putin’s announcement came after Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered provincial governors to move at a quicker pace to provide hospital beds for coronavirus patients, while Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ordered the closure of all the capital's eateries, shopping malls, and parks from March 28 to April 5.

Later on March 26, Putin proposed at a Group of 20 (G20) video conference that a freeze be placed on economic sanctions to allow countries to better combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is accusing the Russian government of stepping up control of news reporting in connection with the coronavirus pandemic on the “pretext” of combating disinformation.

In a statement on March 26, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said Russian journalists covering the coronavirus crisis are being targeted by Roskomnadzor, the country’s media regulator, which it has included in its list of Digital Predators of Press Freedom.

Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, urged the Russian authorities not to “take advantage of this epidemic to restrict press freedom.”

Cavelier also called for “the repeal of the excessively vague ‘fake news’ law,” which she said “violates the freedom to inform.”

Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

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Iran

Iran has announced 157 new deaths from the coronavirus, raising the official toll to 2,234, as a ban on intercity travel came into effect amid fears of a second wave of infections in one of the world's worst-hit countries

Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told a news conference that a record-breaking 2,389 new cases have been confirmed over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of declared infections to 29,406.

Jahanpur said that the spread of the new coronavirus and its rate of infection was "growing steadily" in Iran.

The travel ban was imposed after officials had complained that many Iranians ignored the authorities' advice to stay at home and cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on March 20.

"Those who have traveled for the Iranian New Year holidays should immediately return to their cities without making any stop in the cities on their way back home," Hossein Zolfaghari, a member of Iran's national headquarters for fighting the coronavirus, said on March 26.

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"The closure of universities and schools as well as the suspension of gatherings has been extended," Zolfaghari said, adding that violators of the measures will face legal consequences.

On March 25, the government warned about the danger of ignoring the authorities' travel guidelines.

"This could cause a second wave of the coronavirus," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said, according to state TV.

President Hassan Rohani said Iran will contain the coronavirus spread in two weeks, adding that further measures have been taken to ease the economic impact of the outbreak on lower-income citizens.

"We will send a letter to Iran's supreme leader today to seek permission for the withdrawal of $1 billion from Iran's sovereign wealth fund," Rohani said in a meeting, broadcast live on state TV.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on all state matters.

Iran has rejected an offer from the Geneva-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to set up a 50-bed inflatable hospital in the central city of Isfahan to deal with the outbreak.

It has also refused 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 programs.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's two largest cities will implement lockdown measures.

The fresh restrictions were announced on March 26 as Kazakhstan's government confirmed the country's first death from coronavirus.

Residents of Nur-Sultan and Almaty will be barred from leaving their homes except for work or to buy food or medicines, starting from March 28, the government said.

Authorities will also close all intercity transport terminals and public spaces in Shymkent, Kazakhstan's third-largest city, in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government said.

Kazakhstan on March 26 had confirmed 109 cases.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has announced the first confirmed death from the coronavirus even as it stepped up measures to stem the spread of the pandemic in the Central Asian nation.

The Health Ministry on March 27 said a 72-year-old man in the city of Namangan had suffered from other medical ailments before contracting the coronavirus.

Namangan, in the Ferghana Valley, is the second-largest Uzbek city after the capital, Tashkent, to impose a lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As of early March 27, Uzbekistan has confirmed 75 cases of infection to the COVID-19 virus. Experts warn, however, that it is impossible to know the true number of infections in any country because of a lack of testing.

Uzbekistan, a country of 32 million people, has locked down several cities and districts, including the capital, Tashkent, where municipal authorities imposed restrictions on movements on March 24.

On March 27, authorities in the province of Navoi said they were locking down the cities of Navoi and Zarafshan.

On the same day, officials in Bukhara, a major tourism area, said they would close the city’s borders.

Municipal authorities announced restrictions in Samarkand and in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijon on March 26.

Authorities also said they were offering large bonus payment for workers in the medical field after at least 11 infections were reported among such workers.

Doctors every two weeks are to receive $2,500 -- several times their normal monthly pay -- while nurses and laboratory workers will get $1,500, junior medical workers $1,000, and others $500, according to a Reuters report.

Armenia

Armenia has reported its first death related to the coronavirus outbreak after a 72-year-old female patient died in hospital.

Health Ministry spokeswoman Alina Nikoghosian on March 26 said the patient was being treated at the intensive care department of Yerevan’s Nork Infectious Disease Clinical Hospital when she passed away.

A total of 290 people have been officially diagnosed with the coronavirus in Armenia -- the highest number among South Caucasus countries.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said that two elderly patients were in critical condition, one of whom is a U.S. citizen.

Health authorities say 18 people have recovered from the respiratory illness.

Armenia introduced a one-month state of emergency on March 16 in a bid to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Since March 25, police have been enforcing a nationwide lockdown after new restrictions were imposed to limit freedom of movement.

With reporting by Reuters, TASS, AFP, AP, Akipress, and Interfax
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