Coronavirus kills senior cleric as Iran toll hits 853
The novel coronavirus killed a top Iranian cleric on Monday, the Islamic Republic said as it reported yet another record high single-day death toll in one of the world's worst-hit countries. The latest 129 deaths brought the overall toll to 853 fatalities among nearly 15,000 infections since 19 February, when the government announced Iran's first cases of the COVID-19 disease.
"Our plea is that everyone take this virus seriously and in no way attempt to travel to any province," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.
The disease has now killed at least 12 Iranian politicians and officials, both sitting and former, and infected 13 more who have either been quarantined or are being treated. The latest was Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, a member of the Assembly of Experts - an 88-strong body of clerics that appoints and monitors the country's supreme leader. The ayatollah, who was 78, died two days after testing positive for the disease and being hospitalised, state news agency IRNA reported.
The novel coronavirus also claimed the life of prominent economist and political activist Fariborz Rais-Dana on Monday. A prolific writer with a PhD from the London School of Economics, he had spent time in prison after being convicted of spreading propaganda against the system.
The health ministry also reported 1,053 confirmed new cases of infection in the past 24 hours, raising the total to 14,991.
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Countries such as Kuwait and Israel have instituted virtual lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, while religious gatherings have been limited at a time of year ripe with ritual. Others have been slower to act. By Tom Allinson
Iran bearing the brunt: with a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicentre of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has cancelled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding
Strict measures in Saudi Arabia: Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque's Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shia-minority area of Qatif
Egypt restricts travel: in Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings
Israel and West Bank cut off from the world: gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self-quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure
Virtual lockdown in Kuwait: as Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing centre, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centres have been banned
In Iraq coronavirus fails to dampen protests: Iraq's protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings
Iran has been scrambling to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19 after it emerged in the holy Shia city of Qom last month. Since then, it has shut schools, postponed events and discouraged travel ahead of Nowrouz, the country's New Year holidays.
Iran has cancelled the main weekly Friday prayers, closed parliament and postponed the second round of legislative elections. The judiciary has also sent 83,000 inmates on temporary leave from jails, apparently over concerns of the virus spreading in the prison system.
But Iran has yet to impose a lockdown, and the official number of deaths and infections has continued to grow exponentially.
According to the health ministry, the rising trend is due to the increasing number of tests being carried out. It says many patients started showing symptoms days after they were infected.
Official tolls, which are given every 24 hours, have usually lagged behind reports by local media and have sometimes been contradicted by provincial authorities.
President Hassan Rouhani on Monday reiterated his call for people to refrain from travelling. Speaking in a video conference with Iran's anti-coronavirus headquarters in Tehran, he expressed hopes that the outbreak would soon be brought under control.
"God willing, this year-end will go down in history... as days of victory over this dangerous virus," he said.
But the head of a Tehran hospital said he was doubtful the virus could be contained without more stringent measures. "We are told by the people that you want us to stay home, but how can we when (government) organisations are not closed?" said Alireza Zali of the Shahid Beheshti medical university. "We should not be confusing people," he was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency, adding that many vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those with autoimmune diseases were not given leave from work.
The health ministry's latest figures showed that Tehran province had the highest number of new infections with 200 cases, about 50 fewer than the day before. The central province of Isfahan followed with 118 cases, with Mazandaran in the north of Iran coming next with 96. Khorasan Razavi province, home to the holy Shia city of Mashhad, was not among the reported provinces with fresh cases. It had recorded 143 the day before.
"If we judge cautiously, it seems that the overall efforts by the people and interventions by the health system... are slowly showing their effects in Qom and Gilan," Jahanpour said. The central province of Qom, where the virus was first reported, had 19 new cases that took the total to 1,023.
And confirmed infections in Gilan reached 858, with 18 new ones. The northern region is a popular tourist spot and among the worst-hit of Iran's 31 provinces. (AFP)