Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Iran Warns Virus Could Kill ‘Millions’ Within Its Borders

The Islamic Republic issued its most serious warnings to date on the toll exacted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

By Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell for
Iran Warns Virus Could Kill ‘Millions’ Within Its Borders
Credit: Mohammad Mohsenzadeh/Mizan News Agency via AP

Iran issued its most dire warning yet Tuesday about the outbreak of the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep traveling and ignoring health guidance.

A state television journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shiite faithful on Monday night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had finally been closed due to the virus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel in the country.

Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 18,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed. Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.

That’s even as the death toll in Iran saw another 13 percent increase Tuesday. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the virus had killed 135 more people to raise the total to 988 amid over 16,000 cases. Jordan prepared for a shutdown of its own, banning gatherings of more than 10 people, and neighboring Israel issued its own strict guidelines.

Most infected people experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

In announcing the new warning, the Iranian state TV journalist, Dr. Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios: If people cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over; if they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths.

But if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran’s already-strained medical system, Eslami said. If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” she said.

Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used, but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly controlled state media represented a major change for a country whose officials had for days denied the severity of the crisis.

Underlining that urgency was the fatwa issued by Khamenei, which prohibited “unnecessary” travel. It comes as the public ignored repeated warnings and pleas from security forces. Such a decree is a rare move by Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.

Some Iranian media later said Khamenei hadn’t issued a fatwa, though semiofficial news agencies believed to be close to the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the order had been made.

Late Monday night, angry crowds stormed the courtyards of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom. Many people visit the shrine in Qom 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That has worried health officials, who for weeks wanted Iran’s Shiite clergy to close them.

State TV had announced the closures earlier in the day, sparking the demonstrations.

“We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!” one Shiite cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: “The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!”

Police later dispersed the crowds and made arrests. In a statement, religious authorities and a prominent Qom seminary called the demonstration an “insult” to the shrine, urging the faithful to rely on “wisdom and patience” amid the closure.

Iran’s shrines draw Shiite pilgrims from all over the Mideast, likely contributing to the spread of the virus in the region. Saudi Arabia has closed off Islam’s holiest sites over the virus and on Tuesday it announced communal Friday prayers would be halted throughout the kingdom.

President Hassan Rouhani said that despite the closures, “our soul is closer to the saints more than at any time.”

State TV reported teams were deployed to screen travelers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital, Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven’t tried to lock down the country the way its allies Iraq and Lebanon have done.

The teams check travelers’ temperatures and send those with fevers to quarantine centers. Iran has been urging people to stay home, but many ignore the call.

In apparent efforts to try to curb the spread, Iran has released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said. That number included half of all “security-related” prisoners, he said without elaborating. Western nations have urged Iran to release dual nationals and others, alleging they are used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Among those released is Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, the son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who was in jail for nearly two months.

Iran’s parliament also met via video conference.

Egypt, which has 166 confirmed cases of the new virus including four deaths, announced the immediate shutdown of all movie theaters across the country until further notice.

It also locked down the Red Sea province that includes the popular resort town of Hurghada. Local authorities barred workers in all tourist sites, hotels, bazaars and restaurants from leaving the province and imposed a 14-day quarantine, according to a document from the Red Sea governor’s office obtained by The Associated Press. Visitors to the province were prohibited for the next two weeks.

Jordan deployed troops outside of major cities to block travel. It also ordered newspapers to cease publishing, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and established a quarantine zone at Dead Sea hotels. It halted all private sector work and public transportation as well.

In Oman, the sultanate announced anyone coming from abroad would be subject to quarantine.

Israel’s Defense Ministry plans to use near-empty hotels, ravaged by the crash in tourism, as recovery centers for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Israel also called on citizens to stay home, closing parks, museums, libraries, beaches and other public areas.

Only short walks outside with family members and pets are permitted.

In Syria, all sports clubs, movie theaters, concerts, theaters, as well as halls used for weddings or funerals were ordered closed in the capital of Damascus, and all restaurants and other shops around the country were ordered closed. Syria says it has no cases of the virus so far.

Pakistan’s number of coronavirus cases jumped to 236, although no deaths have been reported. Government critics say thousands of pilgrims were not properly screened as they arrived from Iran at the southwestern Taftan border earlier this month.

By Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell for the Associated Press. Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran, Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.