Iran coronavirus cases surge again after lockdowns lifted

New daily cases have almost doubled in past two weeks as country begins to open up and allow people to return to work

Coronavirus cases in Iran, until recently the hardest-hit nation in the Middle East, have surged again as the country has eased restrictions.

The number of new daily cases in Iran peaked on March 30, with 3,186, and declined through April to a low of 802 new cases on May 2.

But over the past two weeks, the number of new cases has steadily increased until it topped 2,000 again for the first time on May 15.

On Sunday, the country reported 1,806 new cases. Officials have played down the rise, saying that mortality continues to decrease even as cases pick up again.

However, health ministry officials have admitted the latest rises represent a setback, saying that clusters in some provinces had led to the surge.

“We are in a situation similar to previous days [in most provinces] save for Khuzestan, which is still in a critical condition and it seems that North Khorasan may be critical as well,” health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said last Thursday.

“If this trend continues, North Khorasan will require more serious measures too."

North Khorasan province is in north-east Iran on the border with Turkmenistan. Khuzestan province in the south-west is on the Iraqi border.

Authorities in Khuzestan shut state offices, banks and non-essential businesses again in about a third of its counties.

Iran stopped publishing provincial figures for the coronavirus last month.

Officials in the south-east province of Sistan and Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, have also warned of a new surge in infections.

“We had not seen such an increase in coronavirus infections since” late February, said Ghasem Miri, deputy head of provincial capital Zahedan’s medical university.

Mr Miri said the jump was due to the failure of people to observe “social distancing and health protocols".

Since April 11, Tehran has allowed the phased reopening of the country.

Iran has reported 120,000 cases, just under 7,000 deaths and 94,000 recoveries.

But a health report by Parliament last month said the true toll could be more than double the reported number.

The document highlighted that only those who died in hospital were being counted in official tallies and said the number killed by Covid-19 could be 80 per cent higher than the tally.

It also said that infections could be “eight to 10” times higher than the 76,389 infections given then.

For weeks, Iran tried to bring the numbers down without a mandatory curfew or closing religious sites.

As cases soared and deaths mounted, authorities closed mosques and encouraged people to stay home.

But Tehran reopened religious sites this month against the advice of health experts, and crowds gathered at major pilgrimage spots.

In major cities, people have returned to work and are travelling more, even if face masks are a more common sight on the streets of Tehran today than before the crisis.

The virus was first reported in Iran’s religious city of Qom and officials have repeatedly downplayed the virus.

They called it a US conspiracy and blocked international aid groups from setting up field hospitals even as cases mounted.

As countries around the world considered lockdowns and urged social distancing through February and March, Iran held the 41st anniversary of its revolution and legislative elections.

Weeks later, as Nowruz approached at the end of March, officials did little to limit people from travelling or gathering.

The regime’s handling of the crisis, even as the virus has rippled through the offices of senior politicians, has led to rare public criticism of the government.

“The clergy’s apparent resistance to the state’s virus-control mandates will likely be marked as a point of no return for public mistrust of clerics, and suspicion about their ability to serve as rational authorities in the political or social sphere,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Meanwhile, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has stepped in to help the country handle the crisis, in a bid to repair its image after admitting to shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all on board, in January.

The incident came amid the country’s response to the US killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani on January 3.

Throughout the outbreak, the IRGC has set up clinics, carried out testing and sent fighters to conduct mass disinfection campaigns.

– Additional reporting by agencies

Updated: May 18, 2020 02:28 AM

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