Saudi Arabia suspended prayers in Mosques

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JEDDAH : Saudi Arabia on Tuesday suspended prayers inside all but the holiest two mosques in Islam as the kingdom steps up efforts to contain the new coronavirus, state media reported.

Mosques will be temporarily shut for the five daily Islamic prayers as well as the weekly Friday prayers, the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the council of senior scholars -- the kingdom’s highest religious body. It said mosques would continue to issue the ritual call to prayer.

The decision seeks to direct worshippers to pray at home but does not affect prayers in Makkah´s Grand Mosque and the Prophet´s (PBUH) Mosque in Medina, it added. Saudi Arabia has reported 171 coronavirus cases, but no deaths so far.

Meanwhile, China reported on Tuesday just one new domestic coronavirus infection but found 20 more cases imported from abroad, with more regions imposing quarantines on foreign arrivals in a bid to stem the disease being brought in from overseas.

The single case in Wuhan will boost China´s view that it has "basically curbed" the spread of a disease that is believed to have emerged in a live animal market in the central city in December.

Shanghai extended its mandatory quarantine to travellers from 16 countries on Tuesday -- including the US, Australia and several European nations -- but said travellers may quarantine either at home or at a designated location. Nine of the 20 new imported cases were in Beijing and three in Shanghai, raising the total number of confirmed infections from abroad to 143, according to the National Health Commission. China also reported 13 deaths Tuesday, raising its toll to 3,226. The country has recorded 80,881 total cases, but fewer than 9,000 people remain infected.

The number of deaths worldwide has passed 7,000, with more than 181,500 cases in 145 countries. Brazil confirmed its first COVID-19 death Tuesday, as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency over the virus outbreak -- though President Jair Bolsonaro condemned what he called "hysteria" over the escalating crisis. The South American country´s first victim was a 62-year-old man with underlying health conditions who died Monday in Sao Paulo, authorities said. He was diabetic and had high blood pressure, TV network Globo News reported. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended on Tuesday that people suffering from Covid-19-like symptoms should avoid self-medicating with ibuprofen, after French authorities warned that anti-inflammatory drugs could worsen the effects of the virus.

The warnings over the weekend by French Health Minister Olivier Veran followed a recent study in The Lancet weekly medical journal which hypothesised that an enzyme that is boosted when taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen could facilitate and worsen Covid-19 infections.

Israel´s internal security agency Shin Bet said Tuesday it has been mandated to collect information about citizens to fight the spread of the deadly coronavirus, a task it was undertaking with "immediate" effect.

Involvement of the spy agency in tackling the pandemic has raised concerns about adherence to democratic norms, with one legal expert fearing it harms "trust and legitimacy" and an analyst describing it as a "dangerous precedent".

The measure was approved by the government under emergency regulations, overriding a parliamentary committee that on Monday had withheld final approval, saying it needed more time to ensure proper safeguarding.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu´s office refused to provide details about the monitoring techniques to be used. But copies of the emergency regulations leaked to Israeli media showed that police would be able to retrieve location data of coronavirus carriers -- as well as quarantined people -- from phone companies, without a court order.

Iran said 135 new coronavirus deaths took the country´s overall toll to nearly 1,000 Tuesday, as it curtailed celebrations for a fire festival in a bid to contain the disease. The latest deaths, announced by health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour in a televised news conference, take the total death toll in Iran to 988. In its latest attempt to contain the virus, police banned celebrations marking the traditional fire festival that comes before Nowrouz -- the Persian New Year. Chaharshanbe Soori falls on the last Wednesday of the Iranian calendar before the country´s New Year´s eve, which is on March 20 this year. Celebrations start on Tuesday evening with Iranians traditionally jumping over fires and lighting fireworks, with many suffering burns resulting in hospitalisation.

"Reports by more than 56 laboratories indicated that we have had 1,178 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in the past 24 hours," Jahanpour said Tuesday.

France on Tuesday pledged tens of billions of euros in financial aid and mooted the nationalisation of large companies to wage an "economic and financial war" on the coronavirus which has sent most of the country´s workforce into lockdown.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced a 45-billion euro ($50-billion) aid package to help businesses and employees cope with the escalating health crisis and brace for a recession. "This war will require us to mobilise all our forces," the minister said, and warned the fight "will be lengthy, it will be violent".

Britain on Tuesday announced what finance minister Rishi Sunak called an "unprecedented package" of government-backed loans worth £330 billion ($400 billion, 363 billion euros) for firms hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Sunak said the measures were equivalent to 15 percent of GDP and were available to "any business that needs access to cash... will be able to get it", promising to "go further" if necessary.

Facebook said Tuesday it was offering $100 million to help small businesses in 30 countries cope with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The social networking giant said it will be giving cash grants and ad credits to as many as 30,000 enterprises.

"We´ve listened to small businesses to understand how we can best help them," chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said. "We´ve heard loud and clear that financial support could enable them to keep the lights on and pay people who can´t come to work."

With most Americans living under what amounts to house arrest, many retailers have decided to close their stores until the coronavirus pandemic passes. That list includes Apple, Nike, and now Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), which took to Twitter to share its decision.

Most Microsoft retail stores are in malls. And while many malls have not technically closed, foot traffic has likely shrunk and many individual retailers have decided to shut down.

The company did not put a timeline on the closures. That makes sense, because the timing may vary in different markets or the company could choose to open on a limited basis (like, for example, taking appointments for repairs).

Meanwhile, in India all tourist visas and OCI entries were suspended until at least April 15, while holders of these visas who were already in the country can stay. Also tightened/closed their border with neighbouring countries. India also mandated 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from seven countries: China, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Spain.

Meanwhile, foreign travelers from any country are denied entry, home isolation for 14 days in Israel. Meanwhile, Iran issued its most dire warning yet Tuesday about the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep traveling and ignore health guidance.

A state TV journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shiite faithful on Monday night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that were finally closed due to the virus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel.

India could become the next global hotspot for virus cases, with experts warning containment measures that proved successful elsewhere in Asia may not work in the world’s second-most populous country, reported foreign media.

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