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Lebanon closes off Palestinian refugee camp after virus cases found

Authorities closed all entrances to a Palestinian refugee camp in eastern Lebanon on Friday after four more people tested positive for the coronavirus, heightening concerns the virus could further spread among its overcrowded population.

The four infected with the virus are relatives of a woman who tested positive earlier this week and are isolating inside their home, according to a statement from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. It said they were so far not in need of hospitalization.

The Palestinian woman who was taken to a hospital in Beirut this week became the first refugee living in a camp in Lebanon to contract the virus, a finding that triggered a spate of testing in the camp. The five confirmed cases are residents of the Wavel camp in the city of Baalbek, known locally as the Jalil, or Galilee camp.

Lebanon, a tiny country of 5 million people, is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees and other Syrians who are residents. It is also host to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, most of them living in squalid camps with no access to public services, with limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership.

On Friday, Palestinian fighters in charge of the camp security wore face masks as they patrolled the narrow streets and alleyways of the camp with an estimated population of up to 3,000. Posters of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Palestinian flags were plastered on the camp walls.

Camp residents hunkered down at home after being asked to stay indoors, while paramedics in protective suits spraying down the few vehicles that were permitted to enter with disinfectant and took people’s temperatures.

More than 174,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, according to official figures, with most residing in camps ruled by Palestinian factions beyond the reach of Lebanese security forces.

But unofficial estimates say the Palestinians, whose forefathers fled the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, could number as many as 500,000.

Lack of testing has stoked fears among millions of displaced people around the world packed into refugee camps and informal settlements.

Most people who become infected experience mild to moderate symptoms. But the virus can cause severe illness and lead to death, particularly among older people and those with underlying health problems. It is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy.

Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters after visiting a clinic at the camp that Lebanese authorities were working together with the UN and other agencies “to avoid an outbreak in the coming days.”

Lebanon has recorded 22 deaths from among nearly 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

The head of Lebanon’s main hospital overseeing COVID-19 patients, Firass Abiad, tweeted that apart from the four relatives of the Palestinian woman, all other tests conducted in the camp turned out negative.

Also on Wednesday, Iran reported 93 more deaths from the virus, with the death toll in the country now reaching 5,574, out of more than 88,000 confirmed cases.

Iran is the hardest hit country in the Mideast and one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.