Iran Warns Virus Could Kill ‘Millions’ in Islamic Republic

TEHRAN (AP) -
General view of Tehran city, following the outbreak of coronavirus, Tuesday. (WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Ali Khara via Reuters)

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

A state journalist who is also a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shiites the previous night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just been closed over fears of the virus. Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader issued a ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel in the country.

Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 18,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across 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% 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 meanwhile prepared for a shutdown of its own over the virus, banning gatherings drawing more than 10 people.

The Iranian state journalist, Dr. Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios. If people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over, she said. If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.

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 command by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prohibiting “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.

Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine and Qom’s Fatima Masumeh shrine. Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That’s worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran’s Shiite clergy to close them.

Earlier on Monday, state media had announced the shrines’ closure, sparking the demonstrations. Police later dispersed the crowds, state media reported.

State media reported that Iran had deployed teams to screen travelers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven’t taken the step to lock down the country like in the allied nations of Iraq and Lebanon.

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

Apparently in efforts to curb the spread of the virus, Iran has released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said Tuesday. He said that included half of all “security-related” prisoners, without elaborating. Western nations have called on Iran to release dual nationals and others held allegedly 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.

The kingdom of Jordan deployed troops outside of major cities to block travel on Tuesday. 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 that anyone coming from abroad would be subject to quarantine. It also lifted restrictions on voice-over-IP internet calling services, which are common across Gulf Arab nations.