Coronavirus kills four more in Iran, bringing death toll to 19
The latest deaths bring the official tally to 19 fatalities out of 139 cases, although the very high death rate has fuelled suspicion that the regime’s figures are too low.
Of the 44 new cases, 15 were in the holy city of Qom where the outbreak first surfaced, with four in the capital Tehran.
Despite the growing crisis, Iran has refused to quarantine Qom, with the health ministry today merely urging Iranians not to travel there.
Meanwhile, the Iranian deputy health minister who was diagnosed with coronavirus yesterday has vowed that the regime will be ‘victorious in our combat against this virus’.
Iraj Harirchi was taken into quarantine yesterday in an embarrassment for the regime, after he had insisted a day earlier – while sweating heavily at a press conference – that Iran was dealing with the crisis.
Tehran health workers clean a metro train this morning in an effort to stop the coronavirus outbreak which has spread from Iran across the Middle East
A Tehran Municipality worker cleans a bus today with the Iranian regime on the back foot over the growing coronavirus crisis
A map showing how the coronavirus outbreak has spread from Iran across the Middle East to countries including Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said today that Tehran had no plans to quarantine cities to contain the outbreak.
Rouhani admitted that it may take ‘one, two or three weeks’ to get control of the virus in Iran, which has been linked to almost all of the cases across the Middle East.
However, Rouhani also attempted to turn Iranian anger against the United States, saying that the virus ‘must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country’.
‘The Americans and our enemies during this time, around two years of which have passed, have wanted, with their sanctions and propaganda, to shut down production and economic activities in this country and for the people to suffer,’ he said.
Iran’s economy has been battered by U.S. sanctions since Donald Trump quit the nuclear deal in 2015, contributing to shortages of masks and medical testing kits.
The shrine of Fatima Masumeh in Qom, which has remained open and is disinfected daily, attracts Shi’ites from across Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain and other countries.
Several of Iran’s neighbours have closed their borders and banned flights from Iran due to fears over the virus, which could further hurt Iran’s already fragile economy.
Bahrain now has 26 cases, while Kuwait has 18, the UAE has 13, Iraq five, Oman two and Afghanistan one.
Flights between Iran and the UAE have been suspended while Bahrain has also blocked flights from Dubai.
About 100 Pakistanis, mostly Shi’ite pilgrims, are quarantined at a government building in Pakistan after returning from Iran, where they had visited holy sites.
However, Iran’s national broadcaster showed the streets of Qom teeming with crowds yesterday in an effort to downplay the virus while a woman was interviewed saying she had recovered from the virus.
Also linked to the virus outbreak is the city of Mashhad, where the Imam Reza shrine draws around 20million people per year.
Kuwait has reported that five travelers returning from Mashhad tested positive for the virus, but Iran has yet to confirm a single case in the city.
The Iranian deputy health minister who was diagnosed with coronavirus yesterday has vowed in a video (pictured) that the regime will be ‘victorious in our combat against this virus’
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has been diagnosed with coronavirus just a day after he appeared at a press conference sweating profusely while insisting the country had its outbreak under control
People walk in front of the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh in Qom, the Shi’ite holy city at the centre of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak
Women wearing protective masks get off a bus in Tehran yesterday, amid claims that the Iranian regime is covering up the true scale of the crisis
Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour today called on Iranians to refrain from travel as he announced the new tallies on state television.
Iran has closed schools, universities, cultural centres, sporting events and deployed teams of sanitary workers to disinfect buses, trains and public spaces.
But despite the rapid spread of coronavirus, the authorities have so far dismissed quarantine as an option to control the outbreak.
According to Jahanpour, the situation in Qom was ‘improving’.
However, Jahanpour said it could take at least until the Persian New Year’s holiday on March 20, or as long as late April, to contain the disease. ‘We don’t expect a miracle in the short term,’ he said.
Health minister Namaki Saeed yesterday defended the decision not to lock down Qom, saying that quarantine is an ‘old method’.
‘We still do not agree with quarantining cities since we believe the people are cultured enough to refrain from travelling from infected cities to other places,’ semi-official news agency ISNA quoted him as saying.
Bahram Sarmast, the governor of Qom, has said that quarantining the city would not be an ‘appropriate solution’ despite the outbreak.
Iran’s claims to have the virus under control lost further credibility yesterday when the deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, was taken into quarantine.
Just a day earlier, the minister had looked unwell and sweated heavily at a press conference where he insisted that the outbreak was not as bad as feared.
In a subsequent video, Haririchi confirmed he had been infected with the virus and had quarantined himself at home.
‘I wanted to tell you that, rest assured that with efforts of your servants at the Health Ministry… and backed by you people, the government and all elements of the establishment, we will be victorious in our combat against this virus within the next few weeks,’ Harirchi said.
Iranians wait to get prescription drugs at a state-run pharmacy in Tehran last week, amid shortages of medical supplies which were ongoing even before the coronavirus outbreak
An Iranian customer wearing a face mask talks to a pharmacist at a store in Tehran yesterday amid shortages of medical supplies including testing kits
An Iranian man wears a protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as he sits in the bus in Tehran
Professor Paul Hunter, a medical professor at the University of East Anglia, said the situation in Iran was more worrying than any of the other countries ‘experiencing significant clusters’.
‘During the past week there has been a swift increase in the number of new cases reported each day,’ he said.
‘However, at this stage it is impossible to say how many more cases are out there but have not yet been identified, Iran is unlikely to have the facilities to identify, diagnose and manage large numbers of cases and contacts with the same efficiency as other affected countries.
‘Furthermore, the country is in a region with several areas experiencing armed conflict.
‘During conflict many people will be moving around the region, borders are relatively porous and urban and health facilities are often damaged or destroyed.
‘We have already seen spread from Iran to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Afghanistan and this is likely to continue.
‘Should COVID-19 start to spread within conflict areas such as Syria or in areas like Gaza it will be very difficult to control, and this may amplify the epidemic.
‘The Middle East is connected to countries all around the world and should the epidemic in Iran continue to grow and spread this will be a threat globally and not just within the region.’
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani (pictured) said today that Tehran had no plans to quarantine cities to contain the outbreak
A masked health worker cleans a bus in Iran, which has today announced four more deaths from coronavirus with 44 new cases diagnosede East
A health worker disinfects seats on a bus in Tehran where four new cases were confirmed today, after an outbreak which began in the holy city of Qom
Even according to official figures, Iran has the worst outbreak in the Middle East and the highest death toll outside China with 19 confirmed fatalities.
However, there are fears the true picture could be higher. Globally, two per cent of coronavirus cases result in death – but Iran’s figures show a suspiciously high fatality rate of 14 per cent.
Further fears were raised on Monday when a lawmaker claimed that 50 people had died from the illness in the city of Qom alone. Harirchi, the health minister who has since been diagnosed with the virus, denied this.
Farahani said the 50 deaths in Qom date back to February 13, whereas Iran first officially reported cases of the virus on February 19.
He also claimed that 250 people had been quarantined in the city, which is around 75 miles south of Tehran.
‘None of the nurses have access to proper protective gears,’ Farahani said, adding that some health care specialists had left the city.
‘So far, I have not seen any particular action to confront corona by the administration.’
Iran faced anger from its own citizens over an attempted cover-up just last month, after claiming falsely that a passenger jet with dozens of Iranians on board had crashed by accident.
The plane was actually shot down by Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the height of Tehran’s stand-off with Washington after the death of Qassem Soleimani.
The coronavirus outbreak has sparked renewed criticism of the regime by Iranian social media users in recent days.
‘Widespread public mistrust regarding the official figures is more dangerous than the coronavirus,’ journalist Siavash Fallahpour said.