Saudi Arabia's health minister Mohammed Alabed Alali addresses reporters during a press briefing about the Covid-19 spread, in Riyadh on March 8 2020. Picture: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP
Saudi Arabia's health minister Mohammed Alabed Alali addresses reporters during a press briefing about the Covid-19 spread, in Riyadh on March 8 2020. Picture: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

Dubai  —  Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on Sunday on the eastern oil-producing province of Qatif, home to all 11 people in the kingdom who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and suspended all schools and universities nationwide.

The interior ministry announced the lockdown in Qatif, which has a large Shia Muslim population, after the four latest cases were confirmed in Saudi Arabia. It is not expected to have any affect on Saudi oil production, two industry sources said.

But the decision could stir resentment in Qatif, which has been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated Saudi government and minority Shia population who have complained of discrimination and marginalisation, charges the government denies.

Saudi authorities have previously said those infected have either been to Iran or had contact with people who visited the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia has banned travel to Iran, which has reported 194 coronavirus deaths.

Concrete blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, one resident said. Other residents reported a rush on grocery shops in Qatif after the lockdown began.

Health minister Mohammed Alabed Alali  said the newly diagnosed people had contact with a person with the virus who was reported to have returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates but did not disclose his visit to the authorities.

The Saudi government restricted land crossings with the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain to commercial trucks only on Sunday and said passenger arrivals would be limited to three Saudi airports.

Riyadh also said it was suspending all public and private schools and universities across the country from Monday until further notice, state media said, adding that distance learning measures would be implemented.

Other Gulf states recorded new infections on Sunday. Kuwait reported two more cases, raising its total to 64, and its central bank announced a $32.79m fund to support state efforts to fight the virus.

Qatar recorded three more infections, bringing the total there infected to 15. Bahrain said its Formula One Grand Prix would go ahead this month without spectators, a blow to its tourism sector, and it has now confirmed 85 cases of the virus.

In Oman, all events at the Royal Opera House in the capital Muscat, scheduled for March and April, have been cancelled as well as tours of the site, state news agency ONA reported.

In other developments:

• Italy on Sunday reported 7,375 coronavirus cases and 366 deaths, a significant jump from the 233 fatalities recorded on Saturday. The country now outpaces South Korea in cases and fatalities. Italian airline Alitalia suspended international service from Milan’s two airports, Linate and Malpensa, until April 3.

• The Grand Princess cruise ship, with more than 20 passengers and crew confirmed to be infected with Covid-19, will dock in Oakland, California, on Monday, as authorities mobilise to get the acutely ill medical care at nearby hospitals. Several ports had refused the ship entry.

• A German man died in Egypt of the coronavirus, the first known death in Africa linked to Covid-19. The man, 60, arrived from Germany seven days ago, according to a statement on the ministry of health and population’s Facebook page. The north African nation has reported 48 coronavirus cases, most of which are linked to an outbreak on a Nile cruise ship in Luxor.

• Apple employees at most offices have been offered the ability to work from home by CEO Tim Cook, who called the virus outbreak an “unprecedented event” and a “challenging moment”.

• France’s confirmed cases rose to 1,126 from 949 a day earlier on Sunday, while three additional deaths pushed the national total to 19, Sante Publique France said. The director-general of France’s Ecole Normale Superieure university  and a member of the school’s management contracted coronavirus and are under quarantine, ENS said.

• The number of positive cases in the UK rose to 273, the department of health & social care said. That’s up from 206 cases on Saturday. The UK has reported two deaths of British citizens from the virus.

• As of Sunday, 100 countries have reported cases, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a tweet. That’s about half of the world’s countries. “While very serious, this should not discourage us,” he said. “There are many things everyone, everywhere can and should do now.”

• President Donald Trump defended the “perfectly co-ordinated” US response to the coronavirus epidemic on Sunday amid criticism over health cuts and strategic blunders that have failed to stem its spread. The virus has reached 30 US states, killing at least 19 people so far, while the American capital announced its first case on Saturday and 60-million people in California and New York state were under emergency orders.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday the state wanted to avoid mass quarantines.

Reuters, Bloomberg