Iran’s Rapid Rise in Covid-19 Cases Stokes Fears of Second Wave

People in face masks at a subway station in Tehran.
People in face masks at a subway station in Tehran. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Fears that Iran is in the grip of a second wave of coronavirus have been reinforced, with the health ministry saying 3,000 new cases were recorded in 24 hours – the highest figure for two months.

The Islamic Republic, one of the worst-hit countries in the Middle East, started easing its lockdown in April after a drop in deaths.

Its leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge that they may have lifted restrictions prematurely. They have argued that a recent rise in new infections was confined to certain provinces and that the number of deaths was relatively low. At the weekend the president, Hassan Rouhani, said most restrictions had now been lifted, pointing to the opening of 40,000 mosques, as well as shops and offices. Despite a clear reversal of fortunes in the past fortnight, few newspapers appeared willing to acknowledge that the virus had not been conquered.

But health ministry officials on Monday sent out a dire warning about complacency, saying the battle was far from over.

The health minister, Saeed Namaki, said he was witnessing sad scenes across the country. “Unfortunately,” he said, “corona is going to score a goal in the 90th minute if some officials and the people believe that corona is over. If we neglect the situation we will go backwards. People, have mercy on us, let’s have mercy on ourselves, government officials are getting tired.”

The latest figures showed 2,979 new infections in the previous 24 hours, taking the total of infections in Iran to 154,445. The daily figure is the highest since 1 April. The comparative figure for 1 May was 802 new infections.

The number of deaths is also starting to rise again, with 81 dead in the previous 24 hours, the highest figure since 27 April. A total of 8,778 have died since Iran’s outbreak began.

Namaki said he had been disturbed by the lack of social distancing on public transport. “The slightest negligence can destroy all successes and tarnish our reputation in the international arena,” he said.

Contrary to some messaging by Iran’s leadership that the virus was weakening, he said that it had become more dangerous. “Last week we had cases of patients dying at the age of 32 or 42 without any underlying disease, due to coronavirus,” he said.

“My colleagues and the deputies of the ministry of health are working around the clock and traveling to one province every day to control this epidemic, but we are dealing with local issues and behaviours that could lead to the return of the peak of the disease.” Wedding celebrations, he warned, would turn into funerals soon afterwards.

He said the virus was most dangerous in the south-west province of Khuzestan, but infections were also rising in Kermanshah, Hormozgan, Sistan and Baluchestan. The health ministry claimed adherence to social distancing rules had dropped from 90% to 40%, and that promised new buses for Tehran had not materialised, leading to overcrowding. Those not wearing masks on Tehran public transport should be banned from travelling, Namaki said.

Experts both at home and abroad have voiced scepticism about Iran‘s official figures, saying the real toll could be much higher.

Health officials have repeatedly raised the alarm about Khuzestan on Iran’s south-western border with Iraq. Khuzestan remains at red, the highest level on Iran‘s colour-coded risk scale, and is the only province where the government has reimposed a lockdown.

Iranian authorities have been under intense internal pressure to lift restrictions and get the economy, already shattered by sanctions, back moving. Nearly $2.5bn of damage has been done in 13 sectors of the economy, according to government estimates. Inflation is projected to settle at 24% next year.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian lawmaker said on Monday that around 230 people were killed in the street protests against Iran’s petrol price rises last November.

It was the first time Iran had even semi-officially disclosed the scale of the protest. Motjaba Zulmoor, the head of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Commission said 52 of those killed were government officials and the remainder were 78 street protesters mainly killed while attacking government buildings.

Zulmoor claimed 2,000 protesters were injured and 5,000 officials, but gave no number for those detained. He blamed foreign media for the wave of attacks, and said the police were forced to intervene when assaults started on police centres.

An Iranian government spokesman also attacked Donald Trump for his policing of the current protests against racism and police brutality, saying it showed he had no authority to advise others on human rights issues.


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