Number of cases of coronavirus in Italy reaches 1,128, Health Ministry says, with death toll rising by eight to 29 in past 24 hours. Meanwhile, new cases emerge in Iran and elsewhere, and France orders cancellation of gatherings of more than 5,000.

A security guard wearing a protective mask stands at the entrance of a large supermarket in Codogno, one of the towns on lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, as a long line of residents queue with trollies waiting to enter, in this picture taken by schoolteacher Marzio Toniolo in Codogno, Italy, February 25, 2020.
A security guard wearing a protective mask stands at the entrance of a large supermarket in Codogno, one of the towns on lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, as a long line of residents queue with trollies waiting to enter, in this picture taken by schoolteacher Marzio Toniolo in Codogno, Italy, February 25, 2020. (Reuters)

Schools and universities will stay closed for a second consecutive week in three northern Italian regions in an effort to contain Europe's worst outbreak of coronavirus, dashing any hopes of a swift return to normality.

The decision was taken as the death toll from the contagion rose by eight during the day to 29, while the total number of cases jumped by 240 to 1,128 —  the vast majority in the wealthy regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

Besides a growing human cost, the government is also worried by the likely impact on Italy's fragile economy, with the respected REF Ricerche think tank warning that the crisis could cut national output by between 1 percent-3 percent in the first half of 2020.

Deputy Economy Minister Antonio Misiani said on Saturday the government was working on a slew of measures to "boost growth at national level" and would ask parliament next week to let it push up the 2020 budget deficit to help pay for the move.

"The decree will mobilise very substantial resources," he said, without giving precise details.

Looking to halt the spread of the highly infectious disease, the government last week banned public gatherings across much of northern Italy and shuttered educational centres.

The virus is concentrated in just a few, relatively small areas and locals had hoped restrictions would ease elsewhere.

Deaths in Iran

Iran is preparing for the possibility of "tens of thousands" of people getting tested for the new coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases spiked again on Saturday, an official said, underscoring the fear both at home and abroad over the outbreak in the Islamic Republic.

Covid-19 has killed 43 people out of 593 confirmed cases in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. 

However, it disputed a report by the BBC's Persian service citing anonymous medical officials in Iran putting the death toll at over four times as much.

But the number of known cases versus deaths would put the virus' death rate in Iran at over 7 percent, much higher than other countries. That has worried experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere that Iran may be underreporting the number of cases now affecting it.

Yet even as Iran sends spray trucks and fumigators into the streets, officials still are trying to downplay the virus' reach.

"During these 10 days that we are talking about the coronavirus in the country, more than 480 people of our country have been killed in traffic accidents, but no one noticed them," Jahanpour said.

Late Friday night, a BBC Persian report citing sources within Iran's medical community put the death toll at least 210. State TV in Saudi Arabia and associated media, as well as Iranian exile groups, seized on the figure amid their wider political disputes with Tehran.

Jahanpour, however, disputed the report as being politically motivated, conflating other causes of deaths with the coronavirus and relying on sources without access to Iran's coronavirus testing labs.

"The queen’s media, BBC Persian, is worried about staying behind of Saudi and Albani networks in the 'lie competition,'" he said. Albania is home to the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

However, at the same news conference, Jahanpour suggested "tens of thousands" could seek testing for the coronavirus. He also encouraged people to continue to avoid mass gatherings — even funerals for those who died of the virus.

“The safest place is our homes and our cities,” he said. “We have to reduce our visits, even attending to funerals, and of course those people who are mourning, will feel guilty if they find that their ceremony causes the disease to spread.”

Concerns continue to grow, however, as online videos showed an angry crowd setting fire to the courtyard of a medical clinic overnight in the southern city of Bandar Abbas.
Semiofficial media reported those gathered wrongly believed the clinic housed people sick with the new coronavirus.

China's cases

The virus has infected more than 85,000 people and caused more than 2,900 deaths since emerging in China. 

Iran has the world's highest death toll outside of China. Of over 720 confirmed cases scattered across the Mideast, the majority trace back to the Islamic Republic.

Saturday's new toll of 593 confirmed cases represents a jump of 205 cases — a 150 percent increase from the 388 reported the day before. 

Jahanpour has warned that large increases in the number of confirmed cases would happen as Iran now has 15 laboratories testing for the virus.

Bahrain threatens travelers from Iran 

Earlier Saturday, Bahrain threatened legal prosecution against travelers who came from Iran and hadn't been tested for the new coronavirus and also barred public gatherings for two weeks.

The tiny island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia has been hard-hit with cases and shut down some flights to halt the spread of the virus.

All of Bahrain's cases link back to Iran, where even top officials have contracted the virus.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry said in a statement that 2,292 people had come to the kingdom from Iran before the announcement of the outbreak there. 

Of those, only "310 citizens" had called authorities and undergone testing, the ministry said, raising the possibility of the untested being arrested and charged if they refuse.

The ministry "affirmed that the required legal proceedings would be taken against anyone who returned from Iran in February and didn’t call to make appointments for the tests," the Interior Ministry said.

"It highlighted that preventing the outbreak of the infection is the responsibility of individuals and society as a whole."

Sunni-ruled Bahrain has engaged in a yearslong crackdown on all dissent in the island kingdom since its 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw its majority Shia population demand greater political freedoms. Militants have launched small, sporadic attacks in the time since, which Bahrain security forces blame on Iran, the Mideast's Shia power.

Saudi Arabia

Also on Saturday, Saudi Arabia announced it would bar citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council from Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina over concerns about the virus' spread. 

The GCC is a six-nation group including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia on Thursday closed off the holy sites to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

It represented an unprecedented move, one that wasn’t taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

Qatar confirms first case

 Qatar's Health Ministry reported on Saturday the first case of coronavirus infection in the country.

The patient is a 36-year-old Qatari who returned recently from Iran, the ministry said in a statement, adding that he is in stable condition.

With Qatar reporting its first infection, Saudi Arabia becomes the only Gulf country not to have not signalled any coronavirus case.

New cases in Pakistan

Pakistan confirmed two more cases of coronavirus on Saturday, bringing the total number of positive cases to four since Wednesday when the first two cases were reported in the country.

"We have received reports of two more positive cases of coronavirus, one has been reported in Sindh province, (the) other in federal areas," Zafar Mirza, Pakistan's health minister, told a news conference.

He said the two people in the earlier reported cases were doing well and one is about to be discharged from hospital. 

France cancels gatherings of more than 5,000 

France said on Saturday it will cancel all public "gatherings of more than 5,000 people" in closed spaces, as it seeks to curb the spread of coronavirus amid a surge of cases in the country. 

The decision followed a special meeting of ministers to discuss the virus, which has infected 73 people in the country, according to Health Minister Olivier Veran.

A half-marathon race scheduled for Sunday in Paris has been cancelled, along with the final day of an agricultural symposium.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies