image Photo: Reuters

WHO: coronavirus “a world pandemic”

Israel is further stepping up efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases hit 100.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to maintain that the situation in Israel remains better than most countries. Speaking at a special press briefing from Jerusalem, Netanyahu underscored that even though Israel has “taken measures that many countries have not” that “challenge” ahead remains “great” and “significant.”

Effective as of 8 PM this evening, Israeli borders will officially be closed to foreign nationals unless they can provide “satisfactory proof” of being able to adhere to the Health Ministry’s compulsory order to observe a 14-day self-quarantine. That same restriction is also applicable to all Israelis returning from outside the country, who now number more than 300,000 according to data published by the Interior Ministry. After acknowledging that the government has now “dealt with and closed the outer layer,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “we are now compelled to change domestic routines in order to deal with this crisis regarding a virus that wants to attack us from outside.” In a personal appeal he said, “I am asking you, citizens of Israel, to change your routines in order to deal with an external threat. I explicitly ask you change your routines. It is not easy.” In a nod to Israel’s renowned warmth, he said this will “require us to make many changes such as something that as Israelis we love to do -to embrace. We love to shake hands. We love to kiss. No more.”

Jerusalem has allocated ₪110 billion shekels for businesses and Ministries impacted by the coronavirus, which is equivalent to just over €2.44 billion Euros or $2.75 billion U.S. Dollars.

Going on to address potential economic fallout, Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed that the nation “is in a good situation, even very good, due to high growth, low unemployment, the debt-to-GDP ratio – which is another way of saying that we can pay our debts. The financial system, and in other words the banks, are very strong and stable. Israel is entering this crisis in an excellent economic situation. And these are the first steps that we undertook (₪10 billion shekels), first economic aid to those impacted from the corona(virus), and if we will need – and we probably will have to – we will provide additional grants (financial aid), and we have much more to give.”

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat also spoke at the press conference, where he said “The goal of our efforts is to contain the spreading and its consequences. We follow developments in the world, see what is done in the places where the spread has reportedly been restrained, and also see what is happening in places where the [spreading] trend is reversed, [we] learn from each scenario and from the entire world.”

The top security adviser added that, “At the national level, there are three major efforts: the first, public health; the second, ensuring the economy’s functional continuity, at least in vital sectors [including] state security and energy supply, food security and providing essential services to the citizens; and third, safeguarding economic resilience. At this time, the immediate goal is to prevent a steep and fast increase in the number of patients. Later on [the goal will be to] change the trend [of the contagion], straighten the graph and with God’s help  -completely stop the outbreak.”

The Israeli governmental statements came shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the novel coronavirus as a “global pandemic” for the first time. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the change of status will not alter the organization’s assessment of the threat posed by the disease, nor what WHO or nations themselves should be doing to combat the outbreak. He did warn that “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” saying that WHO has been “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

While Dr. Gebreyesus further urged the international community to redouble efforts to contain the outbreak, insisting that ‘aggressive measures could still play a big role to curb the virus,’ the Executive Director of WHO’s Emergencies program revealed that Italy and the Islamic Republic of Iran are at the forefront of contagion. Over the past 24 hours alone, there have been 75 deaths due to the disease in the Islamic Republic. Dr. Michael Ryan said, “Clearly the situation in Iran is still very serious. There are still a very high number of deaths, there is a high number of sick people and while the number of cases and the intensity of surveillance has increased, we would like to see that increase even further and we would like to see more support the clinical care of sick people in Iran, both within Iran, certainly with our support and the support of the rest of the international community.”

While Rome has maintained transparency over its 10,000 recorded coronavirus cases and 630 deaths, Tehran’s policy of ambiguity has detailed only 8,000 cases and 429 related-fatalities. Iranian sources confirmed to TV7 that actions by the Ayatollah are aimed at quelling nationwide hysteria, although the public is expressing growing frustration over rising prices and a lack of public information vis-à-vis preventative measures. One Iranian identified as Mahmoud Yakubiyan told the Reuters news agency that “People are not informed enough about how they should protect themselves against the virus. Information is restricted as to what we hear from radio and TV.” Moreover, he stated that “All the products that we need to fight against coronavirus are in the black market. It is said that the black marketeers are arrested, however; and we still have problems in finding the face masks and disinfection equipment.” Yakubiyan further argued that failure to place cities under quarantine immediately after detection of the virus was to blame for its rapid spread.

Fatima Alizade complained that “Since coronavirus hit our country, things have been crazy. Face masks are so expensive. We cannot find sterile gloves and disinfection gel. Even if we find, they are so much expensive. This mask, for instance, was sold at ﷼ 400.000 Iranian Rial (approximately $10 USD). Before the virus outbreak, we bought it at around ﷼20.000 Rial. Due to the virus, such products should normally be sold at cheaper prices, and it should not turn into a way of making money.”

Another Iranian, who refused to be identified, commented that “People are much affected psychologically. Many people are not informed about the virus and access to health services is almost impossible.”