Why is Iran becoming new epicentre of coronavirus outbreak?
The situation in the Islamic republic is turning grave as the country’s leadership is downplaying the coronavirus outbreak. Iran is also struggling to respond to the disease due to a lack of medical equipment amid US-imposed sanctions.
Iran, the country of 83 million people, is turning out to be an epicentre of the killer coronavirus epidemic in the Middle East, with 107 deaths and over 3,500 confirmed cases. But the Islamic Republic’s leadership, which once predicted that the disease ravaging China would not affect their country, seems unable to grasp the scope or severity of the outbreak.
All of Iran's 31 provinces have been hit with the virus. Critics of the secretive Iranian regime in and outside the country are questioning whether officials in Tehran have given the public a full and transparent picture of the outbreak. But Iranian officials have rejected any suggestion that they are playing down the deadly epidemic.
The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had earlier said the virus won't impact the country for long and will disappear. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities and towns.
The situation in Iran
Nearly three dozen lawmakers in the country have contracted Covid-19, including a Vice-President and the deputy Health Minister in charge of leading the fight against the country’s outbreak. Twenty-three parliamentarians – about 8 per cent of Parliament – have taken ill. Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a 71-year-old adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei died on Monday, and retired former Ambassador to the Vatican, Hadi Khosrowshahi, died last week.
Amid the alarming situation, a disturbing video emerged of body bags strewn on the floors of a hospital in Qom -- an Iranian city where the coronavirus was first detected in the hard-hit Islamic Republic -- and the man who filmed it has been arrested, according to a report.
In this footage from inside Qom's Behesht-e Masoumeh morgue, workers in protective suits and masks are seen busily walk among the bodies.
The footage was apparently shot by a hospital worker in the holy city of Qom and shared on social media by journalist Mohamad Ahwaze.
“One of the medical personnel documents the death of dozens of people infected with the coronavirus in the city of Qom only, and says many deaths, and there is no place for funerals,” Ahwaze said in a tweet.
“While the Iranian government covers up the scale of the disaster and says there is nothing to worry about!” he added. Qom’s deputy prosecutor announced that the man who captured the footage had been arrested.
Measures taken by Iran
The country has come under pressure from other Middle Eastern nations -- including Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain -- which have reported cases with links to Qom, where several holy sites are regularly visited by large crowds.
Some restrictions are now in place. Visits are only allowed once people had been given hand-sanitising gels, health information and face masks.
Iran has banned Friday prayers in the centres of all provinces across the country for the second week in a row, to help curb the spread of the virus. Schools and universities have also been shut, while concerts and sports events have been cancelled.
On Thursday, Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced a national plan to tackle the virus that will include all 17,000 health centres and 9,000 medical clinics in every part of the country.
Under the plan, some infected people will have to stay home under quarantine but continue receiving medical supplies. Those with more serious conditions will stay in hospital.
Earlier in the week, the Health Ministry announced it would be activating a nationwide team of 300,000 health workers and specialists to defeat the spread of the virus. The country also plans to temporarily release 54,000 people from prisons as it tackles the epidemic.
Does Iran have enough medical equipment?
According to observers, the pressure of US sanctions has compounded the challenge for Iran in responding to the outbreak. Political and economic isolation have left the Islamic republic dependent on supply chains from China – which have been disrupted or shut off due to the epidemic – and experts say sanctions make financing, even for medical supplies, next to impossible.
A shortage of test kits has made it difficult to know just how many people have been infected with the virus.
Iranian health officials complained that the government delayed in getting local health care providers the equipment and supplies they needed for testing and treatment. A technical team from the World Health Organisation (WHO) travelled to Tehran this week to help confront the outbreak.
An Iranian medical importer has said he is unable to purchase testing kits due to US-imposed sanctions, according to local reports. "Many international companies are ready to supply Iran with coronavirus test kits, but we can't send them money," said Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran's Association of Medical Equipment Importers was quoted as saying by the Ilna news agency.
But the US has denied that its sanctions are restricting Iran's ability to import medical supplies, pointing to an exemption for humanitarian goods.
The country is also facing a shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitizers.
Iranians have been queuing up at pharmacies to purchase medical masks as well as disinfectant gels and sprays. 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 a few weeks ago.
Experts warn that the Iranian government has put saving face ahead of public safety by going ahead with parliamentary elections last week and holding back on stricter containment measures like the citywide quarantines and lockdowns which have been implemented in China.