Oman must 'learn to live' with coronavirus, health minister says as new cases surge

Welcome aboard Oman Air: cabin crew show off their new protective uniforms

During the past week confirmed Covid-19 cases in Oman have risen by 62% and now total more than 13,000. On Wednesday alone, the Gulf state recorded 738 new infections.

Health minister Ahmed al-Saidi blames the increase on people socialising during the Islamic month of Ramadan (24 April-23 May) and the festival of Eid al-Fitr which followed.

"If you look at the figures the cases began to increase during the second half of Ramadan and then it just shot up during Eid because people are flouting the social distancing rules," he said. "The numbers have increased over the last few days because of this."

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Covid-19 first arrived in Oman towards the end of February with travellers returning from Iran. The authorities took swift action, quarantining more than 1,300 people, and for a while their efforts seemed to be paying off.

That changed in mid-April when large numbers of cases began appearing among Oman's expatriate communities. Expatriates – mainly Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers – account for about 43% of the population. As in the other Gulf states they have been disproportionately affected by the virus, mainly due to cramped living conditions. That is a continuing problem. Of the 738 new cases recorded on Wednesday, 414 (56%) were non-Omanis.

But it's clear that Oman also has a more general problem in getting people to abide by the rules for social distancing.

Gatherings of five or more people are forbidden unless they live together. Merely inviting someone to a party, a wedding or a funeral is an offence and Oman's penalties for violations are tough.

Taking part in a prohibited gathering can result in a fine of 1,500 riyals ($3,900) while shops that continue trading after being ordered to close can be fined twice as much. Several arrests were reported on Tuesday.

While repeatedly warning the public to abide by the rules, the authorities are also trying to organise a gradual return to something approaching normality. Oman Air is preparing to resume services later this month and has been showing off the new uniform for cabin crew which comprises disposable body suits, masks, face shields and gloves.

Meanwhile, the tourism ministry has issued detailed guidelines for hotel staff and guests aimed at minimising the risk of infection.

Unfortunately for Oman, these attempts to open up come at an inauspicious time. While some Arab countries – notably Jordan, Tunisia and Palestine – have reduced new Covid-19 cases to a trickle, Oman's epidemic is still growing. Speaking on TV earlier this week, health minister Saidi said Omanis will have to "learn to live" with the virus.

New Covid-19 cases in Oman. Seven-day running average, daily since April 1

Middle East updates

New cases

A further 12,065 Covid-19 infections have been reported in the Middle East and North Africa since yesterday's update.

For the fifth day running, Iran reported the region's biggest day-on-day increase – 3,134 new cases.

Large numbers of new cases were also reported by Saudi Arabia (2,171), Qatar (1,901) and Egypt (1,079).

The list below shows cumulative totals (excluding Iran) since the outbreak began, with day-on-day increases in brackets.

Algeria 9,733 (+107)
Bahrain 12,815 (+504)
Egypt 28,615 (+1,079)
Iraq 8,168 (+781)
Israel 17,429 (+87)
Jordan 757 (+2)
Kuwait 29,359 (+710)
Lebanon 1,256 (+14)
Libya 196 (+14)
Morocco 7,922 (+56)
Oman 13,537 (+738)
Palestine 636 (+6)
Qatar 62,160 (+1,901)
Saudi Arabia 91,182 (+2,171)
Sudan 5,499 (+189)
Syria 123 (-)
Tunisia 1,087 (+1)
UAE 36,359 (+571)
Yemen 423 (+20)

TOTAL: 326,833 (+8,931)

Note: Yemen's total includes four cases reported by the unrecognised Houthi government in the north of the country. Palestine's total includes East Jerusalem.

New Covid-19 cases reported in the Middle East (excluding Iran) day by day during the past two months

Death toll

A further 196 coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the region yesterday – 70 of them in Iran.

Egypt reported 36 deaths and Saudi Arabia 30.

The list below shows cumulative totals of reported deaths in the region outside Iran, with day-on-day increases in brackets.

Algeria 673 (+6)
Bahrain 20 (+1)
Egypt 1,088 (+36)
Iraq 256 (+21)
Israel 291 (+1)
Jordan 9 (-)
Kuwait 230 (+4)
Lebanon 27 (-)
Libya 5 (-)
Morocco 206 (-)
Oman 67 (+8)
Palestine 5 (-)
Qatar 45 (+2)
Saudi Arabia 579 (+30)
Sudan 314 (+7)
Syria 6 (-)
Tunisia 49 (+1)
UAE 270 (+1)
Yemen 96 (+8)

TOTAL: 4,236 (+126)

Note: Yemen's total includes one death reported by the unrecognised Houthi government in the north of the country.

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For anyone interested: A spreadsheet documenting the coronavirus cases and deaths reported in the region each day can be viewed here.