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Syria bans shisha, closes schools over virus fears

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Damascus (AFP)

Syrian authorities on Friday announced measures aimed at preventing coronavirus from reaching the war-torn country, including school closures and a ban on smoking shisha in cafes, state media reported.

Damascus ordered the closure of all public and private schools, universities and technical institutes until April 2, SANA reported.

The government also cut civil servant staffing by 60 percent, slashed working hours and suspended the use of fingerprint scanners for public employees for a month, SANA said.

Authorities announced a halt to all "scientific, cultural, social and sporting activities" and banned the smoking of popular shisha water pipes in cafes and restaurants.

Two quarantine centres will be established in each of the country's provinces, the government said.

To date Syria has not reported any cases of COVID-19, and on Friday, the health ministry again denied that the virus was present, SANA said.

But such denials have been met with scepticism online, given that Syria's five neighbours -- Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel -- have all reported COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

The risk of the virus spreading is particularly pressing in Idlib, which shelters some three million people.

The northwestern province is the country's last rebel and jihadist bastion and has been subject to months of intense bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia.

Nearly one million people have been displaced since December by the offensive, which was halted on March 6 by a ceasefire negotiated between Russia and Turkey.

Recent fighting also damaged the province's medical infrastructure, already devastated by nine years of war.

Syria's "fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond" to an epidemic, World Health Organization spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson told AFP on Sunday.

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