BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese rushed to food stores to stock up on vegetables and basic items, hours before the government reinstated a nationwide lockdown Wednesday, following a spike in reported coronavirus cases.
The government called on the public to stay home for four days starting Wednesday evening and until dawn on Monday, reversing measures that were gradually implemented since last month that phased out restrictions imposed since mid-March.
The new shutdown is a rare reversal and comes as many countries have started easing restrictions despite grave concerns of a setback as they seek to balance economic and health care needs. Many countries are seeing an increase in infections after loosening lockdown restrictions. They include Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic first broke out, South Korea and Iraq, which recorded on Wednesday one of the highest single day number of infections since the outbreak.
Restaurants in Lebanon will close down after they partially opened 10 days ago. The country's top Sunni Muslim cleric announced that communal Friday prayers in mosques will also be halted, only a week after they were allowed to resume at limited capacity.
The public health crisis comes at a particularly turbulent period for Lebanon. The country is facing an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, putting pressure on a population that is seeing its savings erode. The currency, pegged at a fixed rate to the dollar since 1997, has lost 60% of its value in a few weeks.
Unemployment had been rising even before the coronavirus restrictions as economic growth and investment dropped. Officials say 45% of the population now lives in poverty. The government has asked the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, and formal negotiations over the rescue plan led by the Lebanese Finance Minister began with the IMF on Wednesday.
Lebanon began a phased-out plan to relax a national lockdown late last month that allowed small businesses to reopen, and shortened a nighttime curfew.
But after a few days of single-digit cases detected, there was a spike in reported infections since last week, including among Lebanese returning home during repatriation programs who did not observe quarantine measures.
Lebanon, a country of just over 5 million, has so far been able to contain the virus, recording less than 900 infections, including 120 repatriated Lebanese, and 26 deaths after imposing early lockdown measures and strictly implementing restriction on movement.
But over the last few days, government and health officials criticized carelessness and lax implementation of social distancing and other restrictions among the public.
Iraq has also seen a rise in infections since curfew hours were shortened ahead of the holy month of Ramadan. On Wednesday, the country recorded 119 new cases, according to figures from the Health Ministry, among the highest jumps since the government began documenting cases in late February.
At least 115 people have died among more than 3,000 confirmed virus cases in Iraq, according to ministry numbers. Case numbers were dipping before curfew hours were relaxed from 24 hours to 12, beginning at 5 p.m. in late April.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it will go into a full lockdown during the days of celebration that follow the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The Interior Ministry said the lockdown would be in effect from May 23 through May 27 — days mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday that comes at the end of Ramadan. That holiday typically sees families invite loved ones over for meals and go out to eat and drink during the day.
And the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, said it will offer free coronavirus testing for all citizens, beginning next week. Foreigners in the country with coronavirus symptoms, pregnant women, those over 50 and those in contact with those who fell ill with COVID-19 also will be among those able to be tested for free.
Private beaches at hotels are beginning to reopen in Dubai, even as the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise in the country.
In Tehran, mosques temporarily reopened Tuesday night after about two months closure, for a special night of prayers in Ramadan.
A mosque at Tehran university campus in central Tehran hosted worshippers for the “Qadr,” or ‘‘Night of Destiny," a special night of prayers in the Muslim holy month.
Officials in Iran had closed down all mosques and holy sites across the country in mid-March, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak, to lower the risk of the contagion. The virus has killed more than 6,700 people and infected more than 110,000 people in Iran so far.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates; Mohammad Nasiri and Mohsen Ganji in Tehran, Iran, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this report.