Iran struggles to contain coronavirus

What happened: Iran is on the brink of a nationwide shutdown as the government struggles to contain the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

  • Iran’s first case was reported last Wednesday in the city of Qom, the centre of the clergy and home to much-visited holy shrines. Since then, Iran has reported 95 cases and the official death toll from the Health Ministry is 15. However, a lawmaker from Qom has accused government officials of not being transparent after claiming that the death toll is well above 50. Local news reports have said that at least 230 hospitals across the country are treating those infected by the coronavirus.
  • The deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, tested positive for the coronavirus yesterday. “We will definitely kill the disease in the weeks to come. This virus does not differentiate between authorities and ordinary people, [but] we do possess the remedy,” Harirchi said. On Monday he denied covering up the scale of the outbreak.
  • Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist lawmaker, and Mojtaba Rahmanzadeh, the Mayor of Tehran’s district 13 have also been diagnosed with the virus, which spread as Iranians went to the polls last Friday in parliamentary elections. Since then, officials have shut down schools, universities and cultural centres, and locked down several provinces for 10 days.
  • The epidemic has led to a shortage of masks and disinfectants in pharmacies. Judiciary officials have warned of severe punishment for hoarders after police found and raided several warehouses that have been stockpiling the materials.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that Washington was concerned that Iran may have concealed “vital details” about its outbreak and urged all nations to “tell the truth about the coronavirus”.

Context: Other countries in the region, including Iraq, Lebanon, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Afghanistan, have suffered outbreaks linked to Iran.

  • Bahrain reported the highest spike in cases as the total number of patients infected with the Coronavirus jumped to 26, just days after the country recorded its first case. Several cases came from Bahraini and Saudi nationals who had flown to Bahrain from Iran, via Dubai or Sharjah in the UAE.
  • Iraq reported four new cases in the Northern Province of Kirkuk (location) yesterday, bringing the number of cases to five. Kuwait also reported three new cases yesterday, all of whom were people who returned from Iran, with additional cases being reported this morning bringing the total number to 12.
  • Meanwhile, after recording its first cases, Oman has suspended flights to and from Iran.

Looking ahead: Iran is home to holy sites that attract millions every year and in a region where several countries have less effective healthcare systems.

  • Iranian officials are considering whether the current closure of provinces ought to be extended beyond the Persian New Year Holidays.
  • With public trust plummeting after the handling of the protests last year and the cover-up in January of the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane, the government’s handling of the virus outbreak is a critical test not only for its healthcare sector but also its political legitimacy.