KUWAIT: A picture taken yesterday shows a view of a hotel in Mangaf where Kuwaitis returning from Iran are quarantined and tested for the coronavirus. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By B Izzak and A Saleh

KUWAIT: Kuwait yesterday reported its first three cases of novel coronavirus among hundreds of people returning from Iran, causing panic and triggering strong criticism of the government. The ministry of health said a 53-year-old Kuwaiti man, a 61-year-old Saudi man, and a 21-year old bedoon man had tested positive for the deadly disease. They all had come from the Shiite holy city of Mashhad. The Saudi health ministry later announced that the Saudi national will remain in Kuwait until he fully recovers.

The Kuwaiti Cabinet ordered the cancelation of all celebrations of the National and Liberation Days today and tomorrow, when thousands of Kuwaitis and expats normally take to the Gulf Road every year. Ministries, companies and even The Avenues mall all cancelled their planned celebrations on the occasion of the national and liberation days. The government is contemplating to suspend school next week as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Schools are off for three days, starting today, on the occasion of the national holidays.

A large number of MPs strongly lashed at the government, claiming the ministry of health failed to take adequate measures to combat the disease and blamed the health minister for bowing to political pressure by MPs to allow a number of people who returned from Iran to go home instead of keeping them in quarantine. The lawmakers called on the government to cancel all celebrations and suspend schools for one month in a bid to prevent the deadly disease from spreading.

Thousands of Shiites from Kuwait and other Gulf states travel to Iran regularly to visit holy shrines. The coronavirus cases could increase as hundreds of Kuwaitis who were brought back to the country aboard special flights from Iran are still quarantined inside a five-star hotel in Mangaf. Police with masks stood guard outside the Al-Kout Hotel, and no one from outside was allowed to come close. The people will remain in isolation for 14 days to make sure that no one is infected with COVID-19, as more Kuwaitis are expected to be repatriated from Iran, including 140 students of religious studies in the holy city of Qom and their family members.

Kuwait has already banned flights and shipping from the Islamic republic, where 12 people have died, and extended the ban to neighboring Iraq, which also reported its first case of the virus. Kuwait also banned the entry of legal foreign residents who have been to Iran, Iraq or China. The ban also applies to those who have obtained visas. The Iraqi authorities also closed the Safwan land exit border with Kuwait upon Kuwait’s request. Coastguard patrols announced foiling an attempt by eight Iranians to infiltrate into Kuwait by sea. They were arrested to be subjected to medical tests pending deportation.

Health Ministry Undersecretary Mustafa Reda affirmed yesterday that all citizens who arrived from Tehran and Qom are subjected to compulsory quarantine in order to ensure their health and protect society from COVID-19. He added in a joint press conference held at Seif Palace that all citizens have been placed in quarantine for 14 days after applying medical protocol. He stressed all citizens were aware of these measures before boarding the plane. Reda said they are healthy and have not yet shown any symptoms of the virus, adding those showing any symptoms will be transferred to hospital in order to receive appropriate treatment.

Kuwait Oil Company cancelled its celebration of the national holidays while many others are expected to follow suit. Kuwait Football Federation said it had cancelled an Asian club game between a Saudi and Iranian clubs that was due to be played in Kuwait because of a sports ban on Iranian teams.

Prices of masks shot up immediately by more than double, although the commerce ministry set the prices of regular surgical masks at 100 fils and the more advanced N95 masks at KD 1.320. Minister of Commerce and Industry Khaled Al-Roudhan also issued a decision banning the export or re-export of all sanitizers, all types of medical gloves, facemasks, virus testing chemicals including 0.5-5 percent cholorohexidine and 70-95 percent ethanol, and preventive attire. The ban also includes coronavirus testing requirements such as RNA process control kits, nasopharyngeal swab-viral transportation medium, Wuhan CoV E-gene, Wuhan CoV N-gene, Wuhan CoV RdRP-gene and EAV extraction control.

The ministry added in its statement that the department of commercial supervision and consumer protection has devised a plan to monitor prices of medical supplies at pharmacies and medical centers to ensure adherence to the standard criteria and regulations. Special teams have been assigned to inspect prices of medical products in the local market, it said, urging citizens and residents to call on the hotline 135 to report any irregularities in this respect. Health officials warned that they will close pharmacies that increase prices and violate the law.

Like most issues in the country, the coronavirus has turned into a political row. MP Saadoun Hammad claimed five suspected cases are being tested at Jaber Hospital, and called on the health ministry to be transparent regarding the disease. He said that the government should stop repatriating Kuwaitis from Iran and instead should house them in a hotel and test them there. MP Saleh Ashour however said that under the constitution, no one can stop a Kuwaiti citizen from returning to his country.

Some MPs however criticized the health minister for allegedly allowing some of those who returned from Iran to leave quarantine, but the minister Sheikh Basel Al-Sabah categorically denied the accusation. MP Abdulkarim Al-Kandari said after the current crisis is resolved, he plans to file to grill the health minister for bowing to pressure by some MPs to let some people leave the quarantine. MPs Adel Al-Damkhi, Farraj Al-Arbeed and Hamdan Al-Azemi immediately declared their support of the grilling.

MP Mubarak Al-Hajraf said people should be kept in a well-prepared quarantine at a hospital and not at a hotel, adding that the political price of such behavior will be heavy. MP Majed Al-Mutairi also said the health ministry with its multibillion-dinar budget failed to prepare a proper quarantine for the people and kept them at a hotel.

National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem called on the government to take all necessary and precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the disease in the country. MP Mohammad Al-Mutair threatened to question the prime minister if he does not stop repatriating more Kuwaitis from Iran, saying the government should rent a hotel for them and look after them there. He said that authorities should quarantine all those who returned from Iran recently, along with their family members, friends, colleagues and visitors of their diwaniyas to prevent the disease from spreading.

Bahrain, Iraq and Oman also reported their first cases of the disease, joining the United Arab Emirates which has so far discovered 13 cases, all of them foreigners. Oman’s health ministry said two Omani women were diagnosed with the virus after arriving from Iran. Iraq said the new coronavirus was detected in an Iranian theology student in Najaf, who entered the country before it banned the entry of non-Iraqis coming from Iran. The Bahraini health ministry said a Bahraini citizen who arrived from Iran had been diagnosed with the virus.

The three Gulf countries yesterday halted all flights to Iran, with UAE also banning its citizens from traveling to Iran and Thailand because of the disease. With yesterday’s announcements, only Saudi Arabia and Qatar are still free of the coronavirus that has already killed over 2,600, the overwhelming majority of them in China, the epicenter of the disease. Qatar Airways said yesterday it would ask passengers arriving from Iran and South Korea to remain in home isolation or a quarantine facility for 14 days.

Meanwhile, Iran’s government vowed yesterday to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, dismissing a lawmaker’s claim the toll could be as high as 50. The government announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped by four to 12 – by far the highest outside China. But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, alleged Iran’s government was “lying” about the death toll. “As of last night, about 50 people have died” from the COVID-19 outbreak in Qom alone, he was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency after a closed session of parliament on the crisis.

The government rejected the claim. “I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names,” said Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi. “If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign.” Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad. Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centers across the country as a “preventive measure”.

But it has not all been doom and gloom. A video has gone viral of young men greeting each other by tapping their feet together to avoid infection, instead of shaking hands or the increasingly common fist-bump. The government also vowed to be open about the disease’s spread. “We will announce any figures (we have) on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

Assadollah Abbassi, a spokesman for Iran’s parliament, announced the latest four deaths among 61 infections after yesterday’s session. Citing Health Minister Said Namaki, he said “the cause of coronavirus infections in Iran are people who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China”. After reporting two deaths in Qom, Iran has yet to give a breakdown of where the other patients died.

The province worst hit by infections is Qom, with 34 cases, according to official figures. The others are in Tehran with 13 infections, Gilan with six, Markazi with four, Isfahan with two and one each for Hamedan and Mazandaran. The health minister said one person who died in Qom was a businessman who had made trips to China. Namaki said direct flights between Iran and China had been suspended, but the Qom businessman had travelled there “on a connecting flight”. Iran’s Mahan Air said it had stopped China services this month, apart from eight flights to deliver virus aid to China and return people under the health ministry’s supervision.

The World Health Organization yesterday said the new coronavirus epidemic had “peaked” in China but warned that a surge in cases elsewhere was “deeply concerning” and all countries should prepare for a “potential pandemic”. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the peak in China occurred between Jan 23 and Feb 2 and the number of new cases there “has been declining steadily since then. “This virus can be contained,” he told reporters in Geneva, praising China for helping to prevent an even bigger spread of the disease through unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak’s epicenter.