BEIRUT - Syria has shut schools, canceled most public events and minimized public sector hours to prevent any spreading of the coronavirus, as officials said the war-ravaged country was still free of the disease despite reports it was hiding cases.
Addressing a news conference on Saturday, Education Minister Imad al-Azab said schools would be shut until April 2 while Syria monitors for the virus, and said it was "not possible" for the government to hide cases as some have claimed.
The government said on Friday that all scientific, cultural, social and sporting events would be halted, and many public institutions would be closed or staffed at 40% and have their hours reduced, according to state news agency SANA.
The Health Ministry said the steps were "preventative" and "precautionary" and intended to raise the health sector's readiness to control the virus should it emerge.
Syria is just one of three countries in the Middle East that have yet to announce a confirmed case along with Libya and Yemen. All three could face daunting challenges containing an outbreak amid health systems ravaged by years of war.
Syria has suspended flights to and from several countries hit by the virus including Iran, with which it has extensive ties. Iranian militias back Damascus in its nine-year war and Syrians flock to Iranian holy sites such as Qom, where Iran first detected the virus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Syrian doctors had detected cases of the virus in Damascus and at least three other provinces but were under orders to keep quiet. Azab denied this.
"There are some saying that there are infections being hidden, but no government nor the ministry of health can cover up a disease," said Azab. "If a disease is somewhere it wants to spread, so it's very hard to hide it."
Pakistani health officials said on Tuesday that at least five of their country's cases originated from patients traveling to Pakistan from Syria via Qatar.It was not immediately clear whether the infections could have originated from Doha, where cases have risen to 337, the highest among Gulf Arab states.