Iraq's virus response halts Iran trade, resorts to online schooling

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraq has ordered schools to teach pupils online, cancelled Friday prayers and suspended trade with major partner Iran, after confirming its first three deaths from the new coronavirus.

Authorities stepped up attempts to contain COVID-19 on Thursday. With students scheduled to return to school on Sunday, the education ministry asked secondary teachers to distribute course materials and offer tuition online.

Border officials meanwhile closed crossings with Iran, where officials say the COVID-19 epidemic has so far killed 107 people.

Iraq has suspended trade for at least a week with its neighbour, a leading trade partner whose $9 billion (eight billion euros) in annual exports to Iraq range from fresh produce to vehicles.

Despite the two countries' close commercial, political and religious links, Iraq has barred entry for foreigners travelling from Iran since last month.

Authorities have also banned travel to Iran and eight other affected countries including China, Italy, Kuwait and Bahrain. Each year, millions of Iraqis travel to Iran for tourism, business, study or medical treatment.

Schools, universities, cinemas and other public spaces have been closed for the past week, though restaurants, malls and cafes remain open.

- Friday prayers cancelled -

Iraq is particularly worried about coronavirus outbreaks in its Shiite holy sites, which attract millions of pilgrims, many from Iran.

While several shrines have closed, religious leaders say they reserve the right to manage their holy sites. Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr personally pushed to re-open the Imam Ali mausoleum in Najaf.

Religious authorities in Iraq's other Shiite holy city, Karbala, have cancelled Friday prayers for the first time to mitigate the risk of contagion.

Religious authorities in Sulaimaniyah have banned group prayer, including weekly Friday sermons.

Sulaimaniyah Governor Haval Abu Bakr has banned all major gatherings in the province.

The popular annual Baghdad Book Fair has been postponed indefinitely, while prisons have banned visits to detainees.

Numerous government offices, including those that issue driving licenses and residency permits, are closed to the public, while courts have cancelled hearings, according to state media.

The central bank has called on people to use electronic means of payment rather than paper money, which can be a virus transmission vector. Fewer than 10 percent of Iraqis have a bank account.

Baghdad has announced three deaths from COVID-19 -- two in Baghdad and one in Sulaimaniyah in the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

The health ministry says it has identified 35 cases of coronavirus, nearly all in Iraqis returning from Iran.

Iraq lacks adequate healthcare facilities for its 40 million citizens.

Iraqis have shared stories online of hospitals refusing to admit patients with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization, there are fewer than 10 doctors for every 10,000 people in the country.

On Thursday, the health ministry announced monthly bonuses of 500,000 Iraqi dinars -- about $420 -- for medical staff caring for patients with COVID-19.