September 29, 2023

Persian News

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Coronavirus death toll in Iran surges to more than 230 as medical staff 'unable to get …

Iranian medical professionals in disease-stricken areas are forced to obtain safety equipment and disinfectant on their own as the government botches efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak. 

A nurse at a hospital in the badly hit province of Gilan in Iran’s north said she was forced to buy her own masks and disinfectant from the capital, Tehran, after the hospital she was working at ran out.

“We don’t have the equipment,” she told The Independent. “That is, we do not have the most basic personal and disinfectant protection.”

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Panic and chaos spread across Iran as the deadly coronavirus killed off record numbers of people in the country and continued to infect thousands, including the man in charge of coordinating Iran’s response.

Iran’s health ministry spokesman declared on Monday that 237 people had died from the virus, with a total of at least 7,161 infected. The penetration rates are exceeded only by China and Italy. 

To halt the spread of the disease Iran announced that it would temporarily release 70,000 prisoners from the country’s jails, though Asghar Jahangir, head of the country’s detention facilities, insisted “health conditions in prisons are completely under control.”

The virus has devastated Iran’s economy and severely impacted daily life. Domestic travel has collapsed, as Iranians cancel plane and train bookings ahead of a major holiday. Foreign visitors have also cancelled upcoming tours, and restaurants and marketplaces are near empty. Even beauty parlours struggle for customers. 

One Tehran scholar said she only leaves the house to obtain basic supplies from the grocery store and pharmacy, while her elderly mother stays at home almost the entire day. “The shortages of medicine and medical masks are becoming worrying,” she said, asking her name no be published. 

Normally bustling streets have been vacated, and those who venture out in public obsess over coronavirus.  

“When you walk in the street and hear other people’s conversations, nearly all of them  are talking about the virus,” said a Tehran businessman. One of his friends was infected by the virus, but he has since recovered. He also asked his name not be used. 

“Actually I asked my teammates to work from their homes, like many other companies,” he said, “In the street, you can’t see crowds of people like normal. And about 80 percent of people are wearing masks and gloves.”

Pilgrimages to holy sites in Mashhad in northeastern Iran and Qom, the central Iranian city where the virus was first detected in the country, have cancelled planned trips. “Ninety per cent of hotels in Mashhad have become empty and no single guest is now in any of Qom’s hotels,” the daily newspaper Hamshahri reported.

Experts are baffled as to why Iran, which has a fairly advanced health infrastructure, has been struck so hard by the Covid-19. Health experts have speculated that the country’s close economic and political ties to China, where the virus was first detected, may have contributed to the outbreak. 

People have their temperature checked and their hands disinfected as they enter the Palladium Shopping Center, in northern Tehran, Iran (AP)

A pair of well-regarded public health officials, who developed Iran’s HIV response policies, also suggested the Iranian custom of greeting friends, colleagues and relatives with kisses on the cheek may have contributed to the spread of the virus, especially among the political and clerical elite that runs the country. “Politicians often overdo it to show their closeness to power players,” they wrote in the New York Times. 

Among the latest infected was Esmail Najjar, head of Iran’s Crisis Management Organisation, the agency in charge of overseeing efforts to halt the spread of the virus. He showed influenza-like symptoms last week and was confirmed to have contracted Covid-19 after testing, the agency’s spokesman said on Monday. Mr Najjar is now under quarantine.  

The virus has already killed and infected numerous members of parliament and senior officials, including an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, as well as the health minister.

Among those reported dead on Monday was a former deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who had served in the elite force’s intelligence branch, the hardline Fars news agency reported. 

A surge of new cases and fresh deaths have been reported in the last 48 hours, suggesting that either the contagion was accelerating or that Iranian officials were improving detection abilities. 

The coronavirus now threatens to roil the country days before the start of Nowrouz, the Persian New Year holidays marked by extensive travel and social and family gatherings that could further the spread of the virus. 

Officials have declared Kish Island, a beach resort in the Persian Gulf, and Mazandaran, a popular holiday destination along the Caspian Sea, off limits to travellers ahead of the holiday, which lasts up to three weeks and is the most important stretch of leisure on the Iranian calendar. 

Authorities have also urged Iranians to refrain from customary visits to cemeteries to pay their respects to the dead on the final days of the calendar. 

Iran Air, the national carrier, has been barred from flying to all European destinations over virus fears, aviation officials announced. 

The epidemic also showed signs of provoking public panic, desperation and chaos in a country where a wide gulf of mistrust separates the people and the government. 

Video posted to the internet showed crowds of mask-wearing patients demanding the attention of health professionals at an unidentified Iranian hospital.  

Gilan province in Iran’s north and the shrine and seminary city of Qom in the centre appear the hardest hit provinces. Health care workers in Gilan posted pleas on social media warning that they were running out of supplies, and that many nurses and doctors were in danger of being infected. Several doctors have already died of the virus in Gilan province, opposition news outlets reported.

Medical staff in Iran dance in protective suits and masks

The nurse in Gilan, who works in the provincial capital of Rasht, described increasing violence in the city as the crisis has exploded. “We have two or three cases of family and neighbourhood clashes a shift,” she said.  

State television warned that law enforcement was cracking down on those hoarding surgical masks and other medical supplies during the crisis. At least 16 people have died of alcohol poisoning in southwestern Khuzestan province over recent days in what officials have described as misguided disinfection efforts. 

Authorities have sought to counter widespread suspicion that the regime botched its response by distributing reports showing Revolutionary Guard members and clerics in surgical masks spraying disinfectant on mosques and holy sites. 

The moves have hardly bolstered the confidence of the public. Civil defence officials in charge of dealing with such calamities are perceived to have been absent. 

“I didn’t expect such a poor reaction from the government,” said the Tehran businessman. “We expect that they are ready for things like this, and also similar cases such as war, but they didn’t do anything. It seems that they vanished. About three weeks ago, they said that there was no risk of coronavirus and there are no cases of illness.”

The nurse in Rasht said government officials continued to keep offices and the state bureaucracy open, creating potential breeding grounds for the virus. “If the government were to shut down offices, it would be the most useful thing they could do,” she said. 

In an effort to deflect blame, Iranian hardliners have made the unsubstantiated allegation that coronavirus was created by a “hostile state” to target China and Iran. 

But many have pointed to the arrogant tone of the Iranian regime as part of the problem. Video distributed to the internet showed a regime official shouting down a physician in the southeastern city of Abadan demanding better protection for staff, including alcohol-based disinfectant. 

“The resources you have are what you need; there’s nothing else,” says a white-turbaned cleric.

“We don’t accept that,” says the director. “It’s not right that we have to put our lives in danger to do our jobs.”

“You don’t have to accept it,” he retorts. “The ‘people’ have to accept it,” he says, referring to the hardline, pro-regime clique that runs the country. 
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