Coronavirus: Iran is facing a major challenge controlling the outbreak

Middle East

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Media captionA woman wearing a face mask walking on a street in Iran.

Iran’s leadership has rejected a US offer of aid as it battles to contain one of the world’s biggest outbreaks of coronavirus.

The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said Iran could not trust the US, alluding without evidence to conspiracy theories that America may have been behind the virus.

Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei

Getty Images

Americans are accused of producing this virus. I do not know how true this is. But what sane mind would trust them?

The statement came as Iranians were on the move for the biggest holiday of the year, the Persian New Year or Nowruz, despite official pleas not to travel.

So what have the authorities being doing to try to stop the spread of the virus?

What about the holiday period?

The Nowruz festival usually attracts thousands of people to the Caspian Sea, and other parts of the country for family holidays.

People “should cancel all travel and stay at home so that we may see the situation improving in the coming days,” a health ministry spokesman said.

But large numbers have ignored the warnings and traffic on the roads was particularly heavy as the New Year holiday approached.

Photos have been shared on social media showing traffic jams on the main road between the capital, Tehran, and the religious centre of Qom.

Many of those online criticised their fellow countrymen for ignoring instructions during the Covid-19 outbreak.

What action was taken earlier?

Iran’s President Rouhani ordered shopping centres and bazaars across the country to shut for the 15-day holiday. The only exceptions were for pharmacies and grocery stores.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The government ordered shops to close

The authorities have now closed key religious sites, among them the highly-revered shrines of Hazrat Masoumeh and Imam Reza in the cities of Qom and Mashhad.

The government came under severe criticism when it had earlier chosen not to close the shrine in Qom, the holy city at the centre of the outbreak, visited by millions of Shia Muslim pilgrims every year.

“We should have quarantined Qom from day one… this disease is not a joke, which is the way we are dealing with it,” vice-speaker of Iran’s parliament and former Health Minister Massoud Pezeshkian said.

Despite its shrine being closed, Mashhad is anticipating an influx of visitors during the holiday period. The city’s mayor has warned of a looming “human catastrophe” and criticised the government’s decision not to lockdown the city.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Shopping ahead of the holiday period

Although the government has closed schools, universities and shrines, and banned cultural and religious gatherings, it has not imposed complete lockdowns so far.

President Rouhani has also announced economic measures designed to ease the pressure on families and businesses. These include postponing health insurance, tax and utility bill payments for the next three months.

The government has said that it will give cash payments to the three million poorest Iranians while another four million households will receive low-interest loans, partly subsidised by the government.

Should the government have done more?

Critics say the Iranian government should have taken tougher measures earlier on to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

However, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that Iran’s healthcare has been compromised due to the sanctions imposed by the US.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The number of cases in Iran has been steadily rising

Mr Zarif says they have “drained Iran’s economic resources.”

The US has denied that its sanctions are restricting Iran’s ability to import medical supplies, pointing to an exemption for humanitarian goods.

But Iran says companies find it difficult to process payments with banks unwilling to risk breaking US rules and risk sanctions themselves.

The government said it’s now approaching the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency assistance amounting to $5bn.

Does Iran have enough medical equipment?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent Iran diagnostic kits and protective equipment for healthcare workers, including 7.5 tonnes of medical supplies.

A WHO team which recently completed a visit to Iran says although progress has been made in expanding testing and in other important areas, more work needs to be done.

Many countries, including China, Turkey, Germany, France, UK, Japan, Qatar, the UAE, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia have sent aid packages.

As in other countries with outbreaks, Iranians have been queuing up at pharmacies to purchase medical masks as well as disinfectant gels and sprays.

Prices of these products, where they’re available at all, have gone up by as much as ten times.

Some on social media have claimed the reason behind the lack of availability of masks is due to the fact that millions were donated to China earlier.

There were also reports that Chinese companies have bought huge quantities of masks from Iran creating a shortage in the domestic market.

The Iranian government has said it has now banned the export of face masks for three months and ordered factories to ramp up production.

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