Three more people have died in Iran from coronavirus, bringing the death toll from the outbreak in the country to 19.
In an effort to curb the disease, Iranian health authorities have urged people to stay at home.
"It will be safer for people to stay at home. There were 34 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, including 16 in Qom,” Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said on Tuesday.
Unofficial tally, however, put the deaths from the virus over 50, creating confusion and fear in the minds of the general public.
This lack of transparency over the extent and severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has been made worse by conflicting statements.
On Monday, Amiriabadi Farahani, an Iranian lawmaker from the city of Qom, the epicenter of the outbreak in Iran, stirred up a hornet’s nest by claiming that the confirmed cases of coronavirus infections were higher than reported by the health ministry.
Farahani said there had been 50 deaths from the virus in Qom alone, and more than 250 people were quarantined in the city, a popular destination for pilgrims coming to Iran.
The ministry, however, disputed the lawmaker's claims, saying the MP could be mixing figures about deaths from other diseases like the flu with coronavirus.
Amid this confusion, many people have accused the Health Ministry of covering up the full extent and severity of the virus and not acting swiftly to prevent its outbreak.
“There is so much confusion surrounding the outbreak of this deadly virus, which naturally gives rise to fear and panic,” Abdullah Sadiqye, a Tehran-based medical practitioner, told Anadolu Agency.
"Ever since the first two cases were reported from the city of Qom last week, which is one of the busiest cities in Iran, the flow of information has not been smooth with contradictory statements and rumors adding to the chaos. It seems the authorities were not prepared for this health crisis."
The Iranian government, for its part, vowed to be transparent about the details related to the outbreak.
"We will announce any figures about the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
The virus, which has infected more than 79,000 people globally and caused more than 2,700 deaths, mostly in China, has gradually spread to different parts of the world.
Iran has reported the highest number of fatalities from the virus outside China, more than South Korea, Japan and other countries with higher number of confirmed cases.
The first cases in Iran were reported last Wednesday, when Iran’s health ministry said two people had died in Qom, 150 km south of Tehran, after preliminary tests came positive for the new coronavirus.
Both patients were in their mid-eighties with weak immune systems, leading to the infection, which they couldn’t recover from, despite their best efforts, a doctor at Kamkar Arabnia Hospital in Qom, where the patients died, told Anadolu Agency, wishing anonymity.
It is, however, not clear how they caught the infection. The patients had no foreign travel record and no history of any infectious diseases, the doctor said.
Cause of transmission
According to unconfirmed reports, some Chinese workers in Qom who had recently returned to China were the initial source of the virus in the city.
Within 24 hours, three more cases were confirmed by Iranian authorities, two in Qom and one in the adjoining city of Arak, 260 km south of Tehran.
The Health Ministry has not provided any details about how the cases multiplied so quickly in Qom and spread to other areas as well. The only confirmed case in Arak was said to be a doctor who had traveled from Qom. He later recovered.
With over one million population, the city of Qom is one of the busiest cities and a hub of religious tourism in Iran. The city is thronged by pilgrims from across the world, which experts believe could be a cause of quick transmission of the virus from Qom to other places in Iran and abroad.
Many pilgrims have already left the city and some are stuck in their hotels.
One of the pilgrims from India, speaking to Anadolu Agency, said they have been advised to stay indoors.
“It is a very tricky situation, because we cannot go around the city and we cannot even leave the country in present circumstances,” said Idrees Mohammad, a pilgrim from India.
"We were planning to head to Iraq from here but the borders have been closed, and now we are left with no options.”
As a preventive measure, local authorities in Qom have ordered the closure of all educational and cultural institutions, suspended congregational prayers in mosques and shrines, and canceled all conferences and workshops for at least one week.
Similar orders have been issued in the capital city of Tehran, central province of Markazi, northern province of Gilan – three other places worst hit by the deadly virus – beside the provinces of Ardabil, Kermanshah, Qazvin, Zanjan, Mazandaran, Golestan, Hamadan, Alborz, Semnan and Kordestan.
In Tehran, all educational institutions have been shut until the end of the week.
Lack of preparedness
Iranian authorities have stepped up efforts to combat the deadly virus, spraying public transportation in Tehran, including metro rails, with disinfectant every day.
The defense ministry, under which the industrial units operate across the country, has placed orders for mass production of disinfectants. A report in a local news agency said around 20,000 liters of disinfectant would be used every day from Tuesday.
The production of face masks is also in full swing, with reports suggesting that the ministry of industries has asked factories producing face masks to increase production until full capacity.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has also issued orders to the Health Ministry to form a national command center that will monitor the cases of coronavirus and prevent its outbreak.
Doctors and medical experts Anadolu Agency contacted acknowledged the lack of preparedness for the new health crisis, lack of resources to tackle it, and growing chaos and confusion over death toll.
“Clearly something has been missing in tackling this latest health crisis, may be they didn’t expect it to spiral out of control and spread to other parts of the country from Qom,” said Dr. Salami, a doctor from Gilan, a city in northern Iran on the banks of Caspian Sea, one of the four most affected cities in Iran. “Perhaps the lack of resources is an issue too.”
According to government officials, the U.S. government’s "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran has severely hampered the country’s ability to tackle this latest crisis as authorities face restrictions in importing necessary anti-infection kits.
An official with Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment Importers earlier this week acknowledged that the U.S. sanctions as well as restrictions imposed on Iran by the global money laundering watchdog have made it difficult for health authorities in Iran to procure anti-corona kits.
Earlier this week, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed Iran on its blacklist, which experts in Iran feel could further impact the health sector in Iran.
The latest health crisis has taken everyone in Iran, including health authorities, by surprise.
"It happened so suddenly and so frighteningly that we were not sure whether to go out or not, what precautions to take, what food to eat, what air to breathe,” Saadat Alireza, a property dealer from Tehran, told Anadolu Agency.
"It has become a big health crisis in no time, and unfortunately we still have no clear information about the extent of its outbreak, the threat it poses and how to save ourselves from it."
What has shocked everyone, including health experts inside and outside Iran, is the astonishingly high rate of fatalities, giving rise to many conspiracy theories and speculations, with some suggesting the number of confirmed cases in Iran could be in thousands.
Many of Iran’s neighbors, which have reported coronavirus cases from people coming from the Islamic Republic, have reportedly closed their doors to travelers from the country.
A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said the closure of borders was a temporary measure, adding that his ministry had held talks with their counterparts in neighboring countries through embassies in order to assure them that “no suspicious cases will cross the borders”.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a state of emergency in some parts of the world and it is only natural that some measures must be taken collectively to counter the virus,” Abbas Mousavi said.
On Monday, the WHO expressed grave concerns over the spread of coronavirus in Iran.
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“We are worried about the situation in Italy and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “The past few weeks have demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption.”